by Trevor Whenham - 05/31/2006
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On June 1, Team USA will be heading to Germany to toil in the tough Group E. They carry heavy expectations, having made the quarterfinals in 2002 and heading to the World Cup ranked 5th in the FIFA World Rankings. Unfortunately, almost no one who isn't on the roster would consider that ranking to be an accurate representation of the team's chances at the tournament. Their group, with Italy and the Czech Republic, is far from the friendliest they could have drawn. On top of that, the second place team in that group will play the first place team in Group F to kick off the second round. That will almost certainly be Brazil.
The Americans will set out to disprove their critics and overcome their draw to show that they belong on the world stage. Once training camp was completed, the final stateside step on that path was the Send-Off Series, three warm-up games in American cities against teams that did not qualify for the World Cup. First up was Morocco in Nashville on May 23, followed by Venezuela in Cleveland on May 26. A match against Latvia in East Hartford, Connecticut on May 28 capped off the set.
If you want to build the confidence of your team and convince your fans that you are a legitimate contender, you probably shouldn't go out and lose to the 36th ranked Moroccans in front of a friendly crowd on home turf. The 1-0 loss was a disaster. They couldn't find a way to score against a team which, on paper, they outclassed. A complete defensive evaporation in the last minute of regulation led to Morocco's goal. There was some concern going in that, with only two and a half weeks of training time together before the match, the Americans would lack cohesiveness and would struggle to play as a team. That concern, as it turns out, was warranted.
A bigger problem, though, had longer lasting effects. Captain Claudio Reyna is a crucial component of the team, but he can only be described as fragile. It only took 17 minutes for his body to let him down. A hamstring injury, the same malady that caused him to miss the 1994 World Cup, forced him to leave the game, and sit out the rest of the series as well. Fortunately, a MRI showed no major damage and he will be ready for the World Cup opener. Defender Cory Gibbs isn't as lucky. He played all 90 minutes in Nashville, but was subsequently diagnosed with a knee injury that has knocked him off the roster. Gregg Berhalter has been called up to replace Gibbs at the World Cup.
Coach Bruce Arena was hoping to use the Series as a way to test out an interesting 4-3-3 setup designed to maximize the American strength at midfield with Reyna, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and John O'Brien. Reyna's early departure caused that plan to be put on the shelf, where it will likely remain.
The Americans badly needed to rebound against 71st ranked Venezuela, and they did. It was a rough match that featured nine yellow cards and one red. Bobby Ching capitalized on a shot and scored just a minute after badly misfiring on a wide open net. Clint Dempsey added an insurance marker in the second half to put it away. It was an energetic and comforting result.
In the final game, the Americans beat 70th ranked Latvia 1-0. Brian McBride scored on a header late in the first half and the Americans dominated the action. The side visibly tired in the second half, but that can likely be attributed to playing three games in six days as much as it can be blamed on a larger problem. Arena again mixed up a midfield which he clearly doesn't have a comfort level with yet, moving Beasley to right midfield and putting O'Brien in the left midfield spot. Beasley is one of the few left-footed players in the world willing to go to the right side.
The team will now head to Germany to get ready for their tough opener against the Czech Republic on June 12. How you feel about their chances depends upon how much of an optimist you are. An optimist could determine that the ugly loss to Morocco served as the wake-up call they needed to get ready for real action. Goalkeeper Kasey Keller is actively advocating this position. On the other hand, the pessimist would say that the lackluster performance, capping a 6-2-2 record this year, the injury problems (Clint Dempsey also missed the last game with a sore back), Arena's confusion with the midfield, and an ugly draw all lead to an early trip back to the U.S. They'd argue that wins against Latvia and Venezuela prove nothing when it comes to the Czechs on June 12.
Bodog has the team at 30/1 to win it all and as a distant third choice to advance from their group at 4/1 (compared to Italy at 10/11 and the Czech Republic at 8/5). Though you would be hard pressed to make the case that the team is being disrespected at those odds, it's also possible to determine that those prices offer some value. If you're an optimist, that is.