World Cup: One great half, one bad call, one point, one coffee-stained shirt and other thoughts on the US' 2-2 draw with Slovenia
"¢ A great second-half performance by the U.S. after underestimating Slovenia leading up to the tournament and the game (more on that in a second).‚ You hate to blame the referee.‚ Teams should assume there will be mistakes and find a way to win despite the officials. But the Malian referee Koman Coulibaly had a shocker.‚ Waving off Maurice Edu's perfectly good goal in the 86th minute cost the U.S. the game, and it might have cost me a shirt (in my frustration I spilled coffee all over myself.‚ Does anybody have any ideas about how to get out a giant coffee stain?)
Of course, I blame FIFA, for the referee . . . and maybe I'll send them my dry cleaning bill, as well. The referee issue is one that arises every World Cup.‚ In order to appease soccer federations around the world, the game's governing body chooses the best referees from all different regions.‚ But outside of the World Cup, the refs only take charge of games on their own continent.‚ Of course, it's pretty much a given that the best club soccer is played in Europe (that's where all the best players from around the world play).‚ Shouldn't all World Cup referees have experience officiating matches in those leagues?
Not to say that Mali can't produce a top referee, or that all European referees are good (the Spanish referee in today's Germany/Serbia match was terrible).‚ But by choosing referees who have not worked European games, FIFA opens itself up to criticism that its most important contests are being officiated by men who are not accustomed to the speed and power on display in top-level football.
As I've been saying for years, FIFA should identify the best referees worldwide and then in the two years leading up to the World Cup, make sure they work games in top European Leagues, in the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.‚ I hate to be so Euro-centric, but European experience is clearly an advantage for players, why not referees? At the same time, that system would give the European leagues a chance to work in some other good referees.‚ The Uzbek ref Ravshan Irmatov has been really good in his two World Cup assignments, the opening South Africa/Mexico game and Friday's England/Algeria match.
"¢ Before the Slovenian game, the talk was about how the U.S. would respond to being a favorite. The answer was: not well. I have to admit I saw signs the U.S might be overlooking a very good Slovenian team both before the tournament and in the week leading up to the game.
"¢ Last month, I interviewed U.S. defender Jonathan Spector, who was an unused sub on Friday. I thought I set him up for an answer when I asked: "England is a huge match and is getting a lot of hype, but surely it's just one of three equally important group games?"
I expected a stock answer about all the games being important. Spector acknowledged that all three games were crucial but went out of his way to attach extra importance to the England game by talking about the need to get a result from the first contest.
It was a correct answer to some extent, and a feeling I think was shared by much of the rest of the squad. To say that all three group games were equal almost would have been like admitting the team didn't expect to get anything against England.‚ I think the focus on England ultimately was important in the U.S. turning in a strong performance (at least physically if not technically) in that game.But I think it left the team feeling that much of the hard work already had been done, when in fact it was just beginning.
Then, earlier this week, Landon Donovan was quoted as saying "If we can't beat Slovenia, we don't deserve to advance." But that attitude seemed disrespectful and dangerous.‚ Slovenia may be a small country without a superstar, but its players all are key contributors for clubs in quality leagues in Germany, France, Italy and Belgium.‚ The U.S might have been the favorite, but it was not enough of a favorite to think it had any right to victory. It was always going to take an American performance full of all-out effort, intensity and determination.‚ That's the way the U.S. plays when it plays well. But in the first half, the U.S. team's attitude seemed to be that it could just show up and win.
The Slovenian goals were U.S. defensive mistakes. Both times US players got caught out of position, DeMerit on the first goal and Bradley on the second, and nobody covered the space that had been vacated.‚ But more than anything, the U.S. just played with a lack of urgency.‚ That urgency and a killer instinct finally appeared when the team had its back to the wall. That's how this team must always play.‚ Maybe Holland, or Argentina or Brazil can get by on skill alone.‚ Not the Yanks.‚ Hopefully, the lesson has been learned ahead of a make-or-break game against Algeria on Wednesday.
* Give credit to U.S. coach Bob Bradley. He went with an attacking lineup with Jose Torres in the midfield, but quickly realized it wasn't working and made changes at halftime. I thought the addition of holding midfielder Maurice Edu was a good one. With a lack of mobility in the center of the U.S. defense, Edu was able to cover the space in front of the back four that had been left open on the two Slovenia goals. His presence also allowed Michael Bradley to get forward, and Bradley ended up getting the team's second goal.
* Finally, my favorite bit of announcing in the game came from ESPN color commentator John Harkes, who told us he had run to the restroom at halftime and encountered several US fans, who said the team needed to "pick it up" in the second half. Hey, thanks for your "Man on the Seat" reporting, John!