02 July 2010

Magic Dies as Coach Bradley Wastes Subs versus Ghana

In what was a bitter pill to swallow for those who had high hopes, the US found themselves eliminated from the World Cup once again by a 2-1 defeat against Ghana. Throughout qualifiers and group play, this team made miraculous comebacks a habit. But luck ran out as they found themselves burned in the Round of 16.

Soccer--more so than any other sport--relies on consistency and persistence of performance. In basketball, the coach calls a timeout when the team is struggling. If a player is playing poorly he (or she) can sub him (or her) out, coach him (or her) up, and allow him (or her) to re-enter the game.

This is simply not possible in soccer.

Once the players are on the field, it is up to them to perform. When a starting lineup is selected, it needs to consist of players who know their roles and are capable of fulfilling them. If they do not, valuable (and limited) substitutions are used to replace them. Considering the scarcity of substitutions, an early sub is a de facto admission by the coach that a mistake was made.
While US Coach Bob Bradley shoulders the responsibility for his sub-par lineup selections, it's worth noting that he did not let ego get in the way of winning, acting quickly and decisively to rectify mistakes. That said, substitutions highlight the most glaring errors of the USMNT's World Cup experience. Consider Ricardo Clark: he got the nod against the Black Stars and the US paid for it. It was his turnover that led to the first Ghana goal. By the 31st minute he had picked up a yellow card and was subbed out in favor of Maurice Edu, a player who had been playing very well in previous games. Wasted sub #1.

Returning from halftime, we discovered that striker Robbie Findley had been subbed out in favor of offensive sparkplug Benny Feilhaber. Findley, known for his speed, has struggled to score throughout the current MLS season (as well as the entirety of his National Team career). Presented with an opportunity one-on-one with the goalie during the first half, he kicked it straight at the keeper. Other than that wasted opportunity, he was virtually invisible the rest of the half. As you might imagine, a striker incapable of scoring or creating for others is useless. Wasted sub #2.

Both substitutions replaced players who performed poorly throughout group play in exchange for the more effective athletes who should have started in the first place, leaving the Americans with only one substitution to burn. The Yanks ultimately found themselves short-handed, neutralizing the momentum they built early in the 2nd half (which included a penalty kick equalizer). Late in the game, Ghana was able to put fresh legs onto the field while the United States was forced to play their tiring squad. Those fresh legs were enough to swing the momentum--and the match--in Ghana's favor.

Of course, we cannot solely blame lineup selection. Michael Bradley and the aforementioned Robbie Findley both wasted golden opportunities. Similarly, Jozy Altidore put a ball just wide of the goal as he went down trying to draw a penalty kick / tripping over his own feet. Finally, stellar US keeper Tim Howard was caught out of position on the first goal and probably should have made the save on it.

While this result leaves us stinging with disappointment, let's try to focus on the many positives: Landon Donovan has now played more World Cup games and scored more World Cup goals than any other American; the USA won their group for the first time since 1930; Americans fans continued to tune in as the Ghana match became the most watched soccer game in US history.

Even the most ardent haters would have a hard time at this point keeping a straight face while denying that Americans caught World Cup Fever. As I leave you for now, check out this appreciation of American soccer.

(Photo Credit: Yahoo! Sports)

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