After the heartbreaking loss to Ghana last Saturday, I was furious. How was it possible that with this once in a lifetime opportunity to get to the final four of the world’s largest and globally significant tournament that we could blow it? When we started extra time, I had this feeling slowly creeping into my brain. If we could manage to play good defense for the first 10 minutes, we would find a goal to win and not have to go to penalties. Then, my heart was ripped out of my chest in the 93rd minute. Demerit and the Captain were caught sleeping on a non threatening clearance ball from just outside Ghana’s 18 yard box. It was the beginning of the end. Let’s just say that the remainder of Saturday “Lightning Cup” Levy and I crawled inside a bottle of whiskey in an attempt to drown our sorrows.
After thinking for a few days about our performance in this tournament, I want to talk about something, that in this bloggers opinion, few people seem to be focusing on. Since the end of the game Saturday, pundits, bloggers, and analyst alike all seem to be focusing on the lack of offensive production from our forwards. While this is a major concern going forward, we have a bigger problem. We have traditionally been, and absolutely were this cycle, a terrible defensive side in World Cup play. Say what you will about boring 0-0 draws, in international tournaments, you don’t need lots of goals to win. If you do not give up a goal, you always have a chance to move through on penalties.
Just taking a historical look at our defensive performances in previous World Cups, you can see a major deficiency. Before entering this summer, the USMNT had only managed four clean sheets in World Cup play. The first two were in 1930, while the third was in the 1-0 victory over England in 1950. The only other clean sheet came against CONCACAF rival Mexico on our run to the quarterfinals in 2002. Luckily, we managed to keep a clean sheet (although we came dangerously close to losing it in the 6th minute) against Algeria. That brings our grand total of clean sheets in World Cup play to five. Long story short, our defensive play has been fucking atrocious. Yes, things have gotten better since the days of Bruce Arena. In 2006, we allowed six goals during group play. This year we reduced that number to three, and Bradley should be given a certain amount of credit for that. I am not down on our defense because we gave up five goals this summer. For me, it is all about how and when the goals were scored.
First, let’s take a look at how the goals were scored. In my opinion, absolutely four, and arguably all five of the goals conceded came from horrible defensive lapses. At no time after a goal did I think to myself, “great goal.” In fact, it was more like, “what the fuck are we doing?” Starting with the England game, while Gerrard did find some space outside the box, the entire play could have been swallowed up had our center backs stepped up, and Ricardo Clark actually followed his mark. The two goals against Slovenia were similarly awful. JFT failed to close down, leaving Birsa wide open to pick Howard apart. The second goal essentially ended Gouch’s tournament, finding himself in no man’s land keeping Zlatan Ljubijankic onside for the breakaway finish. Our defense looked a bit suspect early, but managed to keep Algeria off the score sheet. However, the Ghana match saw us revert back to our old ways. Boateng was simply given too much time and space by Clark (there he is again) and our center backs for his finish. Maybe Howard could have made the stop if he was not so far out on his line, but getting beat on the near post is never a good thing. The goal that doomed the USMNT was in my opinion the worst of the bunch. Yes, Gyan absolutely buried the volley with clinical precision; problem is that it should have never gotten that far. The first rule of defending balls in the air is simply, and taught at the lowest levels of the game, don’t let the ball bounce. For some reason Demerit and Boca both decided to take a
15 second ball watching break and let the ball bounce onto the feet of the chasing Gyan. He did not miss his chance, and our trip to South Africa was essentially over.
Now it’s time to take a looks at what the real problem is. During World Cup play, we are going to give up some goals, I understand that. We are playing against the world’s best competition, I get it. However, we cannot continue to give up these goals so early on. Here are the times of the goals scored in order, fourth min, 13th min, 42nd min, 5th min, and 93rd min (third min of extra time). See a trend? The USMNT surrendered a goal within the first 13 minutes of ever game played (other than Algeria). Against international competition we cannot continue to give up goals, especially the shitty ones, this early. We can only dig holes so deep before we begin to bury ourselves. The Ghana game is a perfect example. Without the mental lapse in the first three minutes of extra time, we at least give ourselves a chance to move on. It is almost as if the team is not ready to go until we get
kicked in the face a couple times. I can’t really decide who is to blame for these poor starts. Maybe it’s Bradley’s lineup choices and preparation. Maybe the player on the field overlooked what many thought to be inferior competition. Or maybe we are just shit-our-pants-nervous right out of the gate. Either way, we need to find a solution.
When you look at other teams still left in the competition, few of them have the same problems we do. Uruguay for example is not known for their offensive firepower outside of Forlan and Suarez. Uruguay is playing in the quarterfinals because they have only conceded one goal during World Cup play. Until we solve this problem at the back, it will never matter how many goals our forwards score. Let’s start to focus on keeping the ball out of the net.
Puck is the pop culture guru for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.