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Should the U.S. have done better in Olympics? Did leadership fail team?By Robert Wagman
(Tuesday, October 3, 2000) -- "For the past month, the U.S. men's soccer team has played over its head against a cast of international prodigies and superstars. Tonight, reality caught up with its fantastic ride through the 2000 Olympic Games when the team's bid for a bronze medal ended in a 2-0 loss to Chile."
That is how reporter Liz Clarke began her story on the bronze medal match in The Washington Post. The report was typical of what we heard coming out of Australia in most of the media over the past couple of weeks. In most newspapers, and especially on NBC, we constantly heard this story of David versus multiple Goliaths -- how an undermanned band of young Americans were slaying soccer giants in their quest for a first ever Olympic men's soccer medal. Truthfully, it's a compelling story to sell, this "miracle on grass" as one of the hyper-NBC commentators called it, but I would like to offer another view.
I think the quality of soccer in this Olympics was at the lowest level I can remember seeing, no doubt a victim of the September scheduling that saw most of the competing teams leave many of their best qualified players home, playing for their club teams in the European Champions League or UEFA Cup. More than half the teams did not bring any overage players at all. Others chose overage players for sentimental reasons, not for their playing ability.
I watched every minute of the United States matches, and thanks to a satellite dish that could get the Canadian and Spanish language feeds from Sydney, a number of the key other matches also. To tell you the truth, I saw very few of Ms. Clarke's "international prodigies and superstars."
There were some good players in Australia. Certainly Chile's Ivan Zamorano, even nearing the end of a glorious career, is still a superstar. Spain's Jose Mari, is certainly a prodigy, and might some day grow into a superstar if he can avoid self-destructing as he did against Chile in group play and Cameroon in the final. Brazil's Ronaldinho probably falls into that class also.
There were talented young players on display like Italy's Roberto Baronio and Gianluca Zambrotta, the Czech Republic's Marek Jankulovski, Cameroon's Lauren Mayer, Brazil's Alex and Athirson and Japan's wonderful Hidetoshi Nakata. But, truly, great players were few and far between.
I think the U.S. team, despite some woeful coaching -- which I will get into in a moment -- was badly underrated. I think the U.S. squad was better than all but three nationss in the tournament - Spain, Brazil and Italy, and about even with several others, including Chile. Rather than overachieving as most of the media coverage would lead you to believe, I believe the U.S. actually underachieved. It was not so much that the Americans could have, or should have won a medal, but they could have put themselves in a more likely position to do so by winning their group handily and making their way into the medal round with a better chance to capture a medal.
As readers of this space know, I am not a big fan of U.S. Olympic coach Clive Charles. I don't think he had all the right players he needed and could have had in Australia, and I certainly don't think he used the players he had very well.
One of the most basic thing about younger soccer players is that they can improve rapidly, or conversely, they can reach a certain point and never get much better. Basically, Charles chose this team two years ago, and little or nothing that has happened in the interim affected the roster much at all. This past Major League Soccer season might as well never have happened.
Never mind that Carlos Bocanegra, Nick Garcia and Rusty Pierce have become solid performers. Or that DaMarcus Beasley has improved by leaps and bounds to be good enough to have started 12 straight matches for the best team in MLS. Or that Bobby Convey has blossomed more quickly than even his biggest fans could have expected and might actually be one of the prodigies that Ms. Clarke thought she saw in the competition.
It is not just a question of players who developed in the last year not being given much consideration. Is there anyone who watched D.C. United struggle through this MLS season who would have expected any more out of Chris Albright than what he showed in Australia? Or from Peter Vagenas, who has spent most of the season sitting on the Galaxy's bench? Or expected the injured Ben Olsen to be able to play every minute of every match?
Charles should have been tinkering with his roster up to the minute he left for Australia and I don't mean just his overage selections or injury replacements.
To be fair, Charles biggest problem came with the injury to right back Steve Cherundolo. Rightly or wrongly, he believed he needed a right back who could push the ball forward offensively and that none of the young defenders playing in MLS have that ability. Without getting into the merits of that statement, this locked him into bringing in Frankie Hedjuk or Tony Sanneh, would in retrospect probably have been a better choice if he would have left Berlin to play.
If Charles had not thought he had to bring in Hedjuk, he could have brought in Eddie Pope or Carlos Llamosa, who would have been a huge help in the unsettled middle. He could also have considered bringing in an overage striker. Brian McBride would have loved to go, and certainly he would have been preferable to the talented but absolutely inexperienced Conor Casey. When Adin Brown also went down, Charles had to bring in a goalkeeper, and Brad Friedel had a solid tournament. Who is to say whether Brown would have been as good, but Friedel and Jeff Agoos held the team together and were invaluable.
In my opinion, the central problem is that Charles did not have very much faith in his own team. If the U.S. had gone into group play really believing it could beat any of the three other teams in the group, it would have played like it. Charles clearly went into both the Czech Republic and Cameroon matches just hoping to survive. He played for draws and that's what he got even when, in hindsight, we can now see very clearly that both matches were winnable.
He never trusted and hardly utilized his bench. It seems as if he has never liked Landon Donovan as a player and he was all but forced to bring Sasha Victorine only when overage Chris Armas injured his knee. What good did Joey DiGiamarino, Ramiro Corrales and Evan Whitfield do sitting on the bench? If Charles felt they were not useable, why didn't he bring players who were.
Charles and most of U.S. States Soccer Federation bought completely into the idea that if the team could get a couple of draws, and then a win against Kuwait in group play, it could sneak into the second round, declare victory and go home happy.
What if the U.S. had gone all out to win the first two matches, come away with six points, and then had been able to rest players against Kuwait so that there would have been fresher legs to have been able to put Japan away without going to penalty kicks in the quarterfinal. That might have put the U.S. in a position to pull a genuine upset against Spain and then into a final against a Cameroon side it outplayed in their preliminary group.
It seems like the ultimate in sour grapes to say that a team that did better than any U.S. team before it, could have -- and maybe should have -- done better than it did. But look at the matches, and with a few breaks, the U.S. could honestly have won the gold medal. This time around, the U.S. did not send boys in against men, so to speak. The team sent had the talent to win. The team played its heart out, but lacked the leadership which believed in the players and who worked as hard as possible to give then every edge on the field and on the bench.
Of course there is yet another way to look at this. As my good friend Jerry Trecker noted: "For the third successive Olympics, the United States men won exactly one game, that against a team hardly regarded as major world power. The difference this time is that the two first round draws were enough to get the team into the quarterfinals. There the side drew again (penalty kick wins like the one achieved over Japan are not listed as victories in the FIFA record books), then lost twice."
Completely true, of course. I would like to think this is a team that did not have to sneak into the medal round, but
one that could have convincingly won its way to the final four and once there, with a little luck and a little leadership,
could have gone all the way.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org..
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com..