Argentina is smothering in its triumph over Americans.
By Robert Wagman
MIAMI (Saturday, February 8, 2003) -- The scoreboard did not begin to tell the story. At the end of about 96 minutes, it said Argentina had defeated the United States 1-0, but the reality was that the U.S. was badly outplayed most of the afternoon and was never really in the match.
The Americans had one of those days where it looked like they could have easily played 200 minutes without scoring.
The match was decided in the first 20 minutes. Argentina came out full of fire and the U.S. came up with a bad case of the jitters. In the first 10 minutes, the much faster Argentines simply ran past American midfielders and defenders. Argentina scored the game's only goal in the ninth minute off a lightening quick give-and-go between goal scorer Luis González and Andrés D'Alessandro, its brilliant young midfielder. But the Argentines also came very close two other times in the opening 10 minutes and only saving tackles by Bobby Convey and Carlos Bocanegra kept them at bay.
"We showed a lack of confidence in the early going," U.S. coach Bruce Arena admitted after the match. "It took us 20 minutes to settle down and to get into the game. I thought we were a lot better after that."
The U.S. settled down and while Argentina still dominated play, especially in the midfield, the U.S. had one of two chances when the its defense and midfield began to play more physically and slow the Argentines down.
By the second half, the match slowed noticeably. This was Argentina's third match in nine days, with long travel in between each match. It seemed to catch up with the players.
Before the match, Arena said "We need to defend well, and we also need to put pressure on the Argentine team by going forward. That's difficult to do."
This proved particularly hard because the Argentines held the ball for long stretches, not allowing the U.S. to push forward and put pressure on its opponent. When the Americans did get control in midfield, they had great difficulty finding anyone who could hold the ball for any time.
"What killed us was our passing," U.S. midfielder Ben Olsen said. "It wasn't crisp all afternoon, guys didn't really move well off the ball, we didn't play at the right pace and we just turned the ball over too often."
Arena singled out his two central defenders, Carlos Bocanegra and Dan Califf, his second half substitute in back, Nick Garcia, as well as midfielders Pablo Mastroeni, Chris Klein and DaMarcus Beasley for praise. "I think they all played well," he said.
The Bobby Convey "experiment" continued to go well. As he was against Canada, Convey was used as a left back, converted from his usual role as an offensive-minded midfielder, and he was consistently the best player on the field for the U.S. "I think Bobby was very good today," Arena said.
One player who had a difficult time was striker Landon Donovan, who was shifted to the midfield when forward Taylor Twellman replaced Olsen after intermission. Donovan made several good free kicks as well as a pass or two, but he was almost completely shut down by defender Sebastian Bataglia. Later, when he moved wide right, he was controlled by midfielder Pablo Guinazu.
Offensively, the biggest problem the U.S. had today was that striker Brian McBride scored his goal for Everton against Charlton in England. With Donovan and Clint Mathis starting as forwards, the U.S. essentially was playing with six midfielders. Whether he scores or not, McBride is a target forward, which Donovan and Mathis are not, and McBride gives the U.S. a very different offensive look and causes problems for opposing defenses.
The last time these two countries met was June 13, 1999, at RFK stadium in Washington, D.C., where a Joe-Max Moore goal lifted the U.S. to an unexpected 1-0 victory. "When we beat Argentina the last time, Donovan, Beasley and Convey were about in 10th grade," McBride said. "In soccer, times can change very quickly."
Argentina coach Marcelo Bielsa brought a young and internationally inexperienced team here, with only two players over the age of 23, and two who previously had appeared for Argentina at the full international level. His aim is to ready these players for the 2003 Copa America as well as the 2004 Summer Olympics tournament. Only one player who was here, the goal scorer Gonzalez, will go with Bielsa to Amsterdam on Wednesday where Argentina will meet the Netherlands using its first team of European based players.
This afternoon's loss makes the U.S.'s Wednesday night match against Jamaica in Kingston even more important. How will the U.S. bounce back?
"These two matches mimic World Cup qualifying," Arena said. "Two matches against good opponents back to back, one in a very difficult away venue. It lets us see which of our younger players will respond and who might help us in the long run." As for today, maybe Olsen best summed it up: "It was a good learning experience."
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6.5: Might bear some fault on the early goal, but made one world-class save and was solid over the 90 minutes.
Defender Sasha Victorine - 5: Not as strong as he was against Canada. Was pulled out of position often and then left with a right quadriceps contusion.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 5.5: Made several stunning plays, but is still hampered by inconsistency.
Defender Dan Califf - 6: This might have been his best match for the national team. He has markedly improved over the past six months and now is solidly in the mix to be in the player pool.
Defender Bobby Convey - 6.5: The best U.S. player today. Pushed forward to provide an offensive spark, yet was able to get back and defend when he had to. Still shows lack of international experience and was pulled out of position too often, especially early, but is making strides.
Midfielder Ben Olsen - 6: Only played a half, but was the most physical U.S. player. Seems to be nearing match fitness after long injury layoff. Will be a player the U.S. must depend on over the next couple of years.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni - 6: Given his Argentine birth, was in the spotlight today and under a lot of pressure. He responded well and had a fine performance.
Midfielder Chris Klein - 6.5: Solid in the midfield, a wonderful defensive effort and got off the two best U.S. shots. A really good afternoon.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley 6: Probably the only U.S. player who had the pace to match the Argentines. Played well, but as he often does, took a physical pounding.
Forward Clint Mathis - 5: Did not contribute much. Obviously, he is not comfortable on top, and was pretty well shut down all afternoon.
Forward Landon Donovan - 5: A few good moments, but did not respond well to the tight marking he faced from some talented and physical defenders.
Forward Taylor Twellman (46th minute for Olsen) - 5: Allowed the U.S. to play with more shape in the front, but was never a factor. Could not move well enough off the ball to make himself available to teammates.
Defender Nick Garcia (56th minute for Victorine) - 5.5: Played surprisingly well for his 30-plus minutes. Played with good pace, made at least two wonderful defensive saves and generally acquitted himself well.
Forward Jeff Cunningham (79th minute for Klein) - 5: Came in and showed some speed, but could not shake defenders and had little effect on the match.
Midfielder Steve Ralston (90th minute for Bocanegra) - no rating: Worked hard in training and was rewarded with an "pay check" appearance.
Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent and can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..