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Analysis

U.S. loss to Costa Rica was fair result despite disgraceful penalty call.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

(Sunday, July 23, 2000) -- Let's get one thing straight from the start. Jamaican referee Peter Prendergast did not cost the United States a point in CONCACAF qualifying's Group E this afternoon at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in Costa Rica.

Of course, Gregg Berhalter did not handle the ball that led to Hernan Medford's winning penalty. Yes, the U.S. did come close to stealing a point. But if the match had ended in a draw, it would have been a stolen point. The U.S. was outplayed over 90 minutes and the result was not undeserved.

First, Prendergast. He is well-known throughout the CONCACAF as a ghastly poor official. But he is, for whatever reason, a favorite of the Jamaican Federation. As such, he will continue to muddle through important international competitions.

Prendergast's problem was not the phantom hand ball call against Berhalter. Costa Rican striker Paolo Wanchope had what appeared a clearly legitimate goal disallowed when Costa Rica was 1-0 up and driving for the match-clinching score. A Costa Rican player was in an offside position, but he did not interfere with the play as Wanchope drove the ball into the net. Under the passive offside interpretation that FIFA insists be applied, it was probably a valid goal.

Then two minutes from the end of regulation, U.S. midfielder Frankie Hedjuk clearly took down Costa Rica's Austin Berry in the box. No one would have given it a second thought had the penalty kick been awarded. Nor would there have been any protest if Prendergast had sent Jason Kreis off only seconds after Kreis entered the match for his really awful foul against Reynaldo Parks. A red card was deserved. But Prendergast blew all these calls, so his make-up hand ball call was in keeping with the overall quality of his officiating.

The U.S. simply did not play well enough to win. To some extent, Bruce Arena may have to shoulder some of the responsibility in some of the choices he made.

Carlos Llamosa
Carlos Llamosa
On Saturday night, several thousand miles north at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., D.C. United took on England's Newcastle United in an exhibition match. United defender Carlos Llamosa lined up against Newcastle's new $10-million man, Carl Cort, a 6-foot-4 striker who has come over to Newcastle for a $10-million transfer fee, and is talked about as England's next great hope.

Llamosa simply marked him out of the match. When Cort ran out of gas in the 65th minute and England captain Alan Shearer entered the match in his place, Llamosa denied him the ball until he went out in the late going.

Carl Cort and Alan Shearer are significantly better players than Paolo Wanchope and Hernan Medford. Yes, there is a vast difference between an exhibition and a high stakes World Cup qualifier. But Saturday night's performance by Llamosa showed he is completely fit, and he should have been in the center of the U.S. defense in Costa Rica.

U.S. central defenders Greg Vanney and Berhalter were simply not up to what was being asked of them. Neither has the pace to take on players as fleet as Wanchope. With Chris Armas often out of position in front of them, the U.S. left gaping holes in their central defense and the miracle was the Americans found themselves tied going into injury time. A better team than Costa Rica would have exploited the U.S. defensive middle several times.

Maybe it was the pressure, but the U.S. looked out of sync much of the afternoon. Individual players made some fine plays. Several, noticeably goalkeeper Kasey Keller, attacker Earnie Stewart, and defenders Tony Sanneh and David Regis had fine matches.

But others contributed distressingly little.

The U.S. tried a different formation. It was pretty much a 4-5-1 with the one forward rotating between Ante Razov, Stewart and Cobi Jones. Stewart came into the middle and played in front of Reyna. Arena obviously hoped to exploit the width of the field by swinging the attack wide, while also being less vulnerable to counterattack by clogging up the middle. Stewart did look good in this new role, but the U.S. attack became disjointed and was still vulnerable to the quick counter-strike.

As it did last week in Guatemala, the U.S. outplayed its opponent in the first half. Actually the U.S. outshot Costa Rica 8-1 in the first 45 minutes, but was able to put only one of those shots on goal.

Then, just as last week, the U.S. seemed to run out of gas after halftime. Costa Rica came out firing and had the U.S. back on its heels most of the second half. Actually, Earnie Stewart's tying goal was scored against the run of play. Between the 60th and 75th minutes, Costa Rica had at least five scoring chances, but could not convert.

Hopefully, from this point on, Arena will have greater choices of players. Get well Joe-Max Moore, get well Brian McBride, get well Jeff Agoos, get well Carlos, get well Ben Olsen, get into the side John O'Brien.

The first two matches did not end the way the U.S. had hoped, but this is not a disaster. It has reduced the margin of error over the next four matches to just about zero. But the U.S. should be OK. The key will come September 3 in Washington where three points against Guatemala is a must. 

Player ratings

Starters

Goalkeeper Kasey Keller - 6:  Played well in very difficult circumstances. Cannot be faulted on either goal. Made up for deficiencies in his central defense. Continues to show why he is a world-class keeper.

Defender David Regis - 6: Possibly his best match so far for Arena. Defended well. Pushed forward on offense more than in the past. Seems finally to be getting comfortable with the role Arena wants him to assume.  

Defender Greg Vanney - 4.5:  An outside defender by nature and by experience, maybe it was unfair to ask him to fill in the middle in as high pressure a situation as this match. He was slow, he lost coverages, he lost battles in the air. A very sub-par performance.

Defender Gregg Berhalter - 5: Called in at the last minute from his tryout in England, he had an uneven match. He seemed to lack communication with the rest of the defense. Made some very fine individual plays, but did not contribute to the overall effort. Plays better in tandem with an experienced and solid defender, not when he asked to carry the load. 

Defender Tony Sanneh - 5.5: Another good performance. His defense was solid with only a few miscues and he is getting more involved in the offense. Started the play that ended up in the U.S. goal. This position looks like his from now on.

Midfielder Chris Armas - 4.5: A very, very spotty performance. He lacked pace throughout much of the match. He often pushed up in offense leaving much of the midfield exposed to counterattack. Several times let Medford simply run away from him. Given how exposed the U.S. seemed to counterattack, he may have to concentrate on defense and leave the offensive thrusts to others.

Midfielder Claudio Reyna - 5.5: An "A" for effort, but about a C-minus for effect. Had a good first half, but all but disappeared in the second half. When the U.S. needed someone to hold the ball in the middle to relieve some of the pressure in the late going, was not up to the task. It would help the U.S. if he became more of a scoring threat.

Midfielder Eddie Lewis - 5: Not a good outing at all. Twice had the match on his foot in the second half and could deliver a goal neither time. Certainly plays energetically, but his crosses lacked quality at critical times. 

Midfielder Earnie Stewart - 6.5: Easily the best player on the field for the U.S. As always, seemed to be everywhere, attacking both from the right and left and then tracking far back to help on defense. More and more is evolving into the key player for the U.S. Arena's challenge is to get him more involved in scoring attempts.

Forward Cobi Jones - 5: For the second match in a row, he all but disappeared. Has shown over the past two weeks, an inability to respond when closely marked. Watching him, one can get the feeling that the long season, with Major League Soccer and national-team matches has caught up with him. Needs perhaps to play more within himself to be effective. Maybe he is simply trying to do too much. 

Forward Ante Razov - 5.5: A hard performance to judge. Great one minute, just awful the next. Played with a lot of heart and tenacity. Showed a greater range than at times in the past, but lacks pace at critical times. Still tends to do things at an MLS pace which, in situations like this, leads to being dispossessed most of the time. Must learn to shoot faster and to think more quickly. Keeps showing great potential. Maybe it is just a question of experience and maturity.

Reserves

Midfielder Frankie Hedjuk (76th minute) - 5: Came in to hold the ball in the middle and to take some pressure off the defense. Actually did very well, except for the obvious, but uncalled penalty on his very late tackle in the U.S. box. Showed he can fill an important role for this team. Might have been of even more use inserted 10 minutes earlier. 

Defender Chad Deering (85th minute) - 5.5: Put on to shore up the defense over the last five minutes and did that. Seems most effective when given limited responsibilities such as in this situation. Showed he too can be a valuable role player in the late going.

Forward Jason Kreis (87th minute) - no rating: Came on in the late going and really made little impression on the match beyond one really awful foul that could have seen him ejected moments after coming on.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com.

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