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It Seems To Me . . .

United States can draw some positives from disappointing Gold Cup finish.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

MIAMI (Saturday, February 19, 2000 ) -- There is a positive side to this loss to Colombia.

I started to say "heartbreaking" loss, but on reflection it wasn't heartbreaking in the sense that the United States really didn't play well enough to win. If you dominate a match and still lose, then it's heartbreaking.

Which actually brings us to what I think is the silver lining in this penalty-kicks loss -- the United States played poorly. Yet, not only could it have won the game, it should have won. For the U.S., just about everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. But it was Colombia which had to come from behind in the final minutes to send it to overtime and penalty kicks. That, playing poorly but still being in control late into the second half, is, I believe, a measure of the progress this team has made under coach Bruce Arena.

In all fairness, only two or three American players had a really good match. Brian McBride scored one of the goals and assisted on the other before running out of gas and having to come out. With the U.S. defense in obvious disarray midway through the first half, Richie Williams came in for an apparently injured midfielder Jovan Kirovski and played beautifully the rest of the way. Not only did he help shore up the defense, but he almost scored twice.

With a few noticeable glitches, the back three of Jeff Agoos, Robin Frasier and Eddie Pope acquitted themselves adequately.A couple of other players had about an average match. That's all. A couple of the U.S. players were way below par, perhaps a reflection on the fact that they had to play three matches in a week, in hot weather, so early in the season.

Because he did not call in certain of his European players, Arena really didn't have a lot of options on his bench today. He made a decision as the clock ran down to try to hold the lead by making a couple of defensive substitutions. When Colombia came back to draw level, the U.S. basically had no offense on the field. Neither Eric Wynalda nor Eddie Lewis was ready to go 120 hard minutes today, and both visibly wilted in the late going.

After the match there was a lot of second-guessing of Arena's substitutions. But it was simply that with few other options, he gambled and lost. Had the U.S. held its 2-1 lead, then his insertion of C.J. Brown and Ben Olsen would have been applauded as just the right moves. Using 20-20 hindsight, he would have been better off having left Cobi Jones and Brian McBride on the field. At lest they would have been better off in the penalty kicks.

Which brings us around to the subject of the PKs. I don't think anyone who witnessed the five U.S. attempts will ever be able to remember the scene without wincing. It was awful. Even Eddie Lewis' successful attempt was far from a thing of beauty. I heard the opinion that you have Major League Soccer, and its now-banished shootout to thank for this dismal exhibition of penalty kicks. MLS-based players just don't get PK-practice.

But last night in the D.C. United-MetroStars preseason championship match, which went to PKs, the players made nine out of ten, and the tenth was well-saved.

I don't think the players know why they did as poorly as they did. But back to the silver lining in this whole thing. Here was the U.S. playing a quality South American opponent, in a match that really counted, before a semi-hostile crowd, had more than their share of bad luck and questionable calls, and it played not nearly as well as it could have. Yet with 10 minutes left in the match, the Americans were ahead and in control, and were tied not because of an error, but a truly great strike by a very good player.

I'm sorry, but I can't help but think that a mark of the progress this team has made under Arena. I guess tonight I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at SoccerWag1@aol.com.

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