BOSTON — The last time the U.S. soccer team faced the Czech Republic was in its opening game of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The Czechs hammered the Americans 3-0, holding them to just a single shot on goal, and the loss was a harbinger of bad things to come.
It wasn’t nearly as one-sided last night when the two met in a “friendly” in Hartford, the first of three tune-up games for the American team before its June 12 World Cup opener against England. And it is hardly clear if the game will prove to be the harbinger of anything in South Africa. Still, the U.S. side was unlikely to find much, if any, encouragement in a 4-2 loss to a Czech team that failed to even qualify for South Africa.
Admittedly, the Americans were not playing with a full deck. Key players like offensive mainstays Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were sidelined while coach Bob Bradley gave one last test to some of the squad’s marginal players before he made the final decision today on his 23-man World Cup roster.
Still, the Czechs are a young team trying to regroup after its World Cup qualifying flop. Indeed, one of the teams that booted the Czechs out of South Africa was Slovenia, which beat them in Prague and looms as America’s second Cup opponent.
If an American soccer fan had pulled a Rip Van Winkle for the past four years and had awoken just in time for this game, he would have found the American team very — and distressingly — familiar. The offense didn’t appear to be a threat to score off the run of play. Both American goals came off set plays, the result of well-placed free kicks by Stuart Holden combined with aggressive work by defender Clarence Goodson in front of the opposition goal.
The defense was once again sloppy, letting the opponents run far too free in threatening positions. If it has cured its penchant for recklessness, it appeared to do so by not marking the Czechs closely enough to be tempted into rash fouls. Perhaps the biggest concern was that Oguchi Onyewu, a vital cog in the central defense who was playing for the first time since a knee injury last fall, looked slow and tentative, either unable or unwilling to leap to contest a header that wound up in the U.S. goal.
After the game, U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said his team had demonstrated some “good ideas,” but didn’t bother to enumerate any of them. Since the only easily recognizable positive was the concerted effort of the players, an obvious reflection of the fact that a number of them were auditioning for a job, I am left to conclude that the good idea of the evening was nothing more than “let’s try really hard out there.”
If you’re not looking for the solace of good ideas, but rather disturbing patterns, one was certainly evident in Hartford. The Americans are generally regarded as a solid side that has earned an inflated world ranking — currently 14th in the world to the Czech’s 33rd — by dominating a relatively weak region.
The Americans, however, have had occasional success going up against the world’s soccer elite. But the major American upsets have come against smaller teams with offenses that revolve around short passing attacks: Colombia in the 1994 World Cup; Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup; and Spain in last year’s Confederations Cup in South Africa.
However in World Cup play, European teams that boast size and a physical approach to the game have consistently manhandled the Americans. And there are a string of losses to prove the point: Czechoslovakia (5-1) in World Cup 1990; Romania (1-0) in ’94; Germany (2-0) and Yugoslavia in ’98 (1-0); Poland (3-1) and Germany (1-0) in ’02; and, of course the Czechs (3-0) in ’06. If you’re keeping a running tally … well, really best not to.
Last December American fans rejoiced over the Yanks’ relatively weak World Cup draw, envisioning a clear path to the second round. But after the England game, the U.S. will meet Slovenia, exactly the kind of tough, physical, defensive-minded side that gives it fits. Playing in one of Europe’s toughest qualifying groups, Slovenia surrendered only four goals in 10 games and, in its make-or-break playoff for South Africa, shut out a high-powered Russian team. Even Algeria, regarded by many as the weakest of the five African teams to emerge from qualification, tends to play more like the rugged European teams than the speedy, attack-minded West Africans (Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon).
The U.S. team has another challenging “friendly” this week — Saturday night in Philadelphia against a high-ranking, European non-Cup qualifier, Turkey — and undoubtedly its lineup will more resemble that which will take the field in South Africa. American boosters can only hope that this unit will demonstrate more cohesion and a sense of urgency for team rather than individual jobs.
Of course, if the Americans reach the second round of the World Cup, or even if they simply play well, the Czech game will be a forgotten footnote to the campaign. But if the weaknesses so apparent last night emerge as the team’s undoing in South Africa, the Czech game will be recalled as the beginning of the end. The alliterative “Harbinger in Hartford” is very hard to resist.