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It Seems To Me . . .

Arena needed to make no apology for loss to Germany.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON (Tuesday, March 28, 2006) -- I think United States men's coach Bruce Arena said something silly last week after the 4-1 defeat at the hands of Germany in Dortmund.

"It wasn't the right time for us to play that game," Arena told a group of reporters. "I should have been a little bit stronger in saying (that). For that part, I blame myself. I didn't do a good job in terms of having our team prepared, but that's a mistake coaches make. I scheduled that game at a time that probably wasn't right for us."

Most of the headlines the next day had Arena apologizing for scheduling the game. My bad, they said he admitted.

Nonsense!

Last year, when the match was put on the schedule, Arena said immediately he was not going to be able to bring in most of his European-based players. The match was going to be played outside world governing body FIFA's calendar, thus club teams would not have to release players for the so-called "unofficial" friendly match.

The way Arena expressed it at the time, and since, was that he would use the match to get a final look at his Major League Soccer players in order to get another read on which ones might or might not be of help in this summer's World Cup.

It was also generally understood that after Germany played in Italy on March 1, the same day the U.S. faced Poland, that German manager Jürgen Klinsmann would use the match against the U.S. to look at a number of his younger and less experienced players before he finalized his World Cup selections. So it was anticipated both sides in the Germany-U.S. match would be stocked primarily with reserves.

Then, Germany was decimated by Italy 4-1 in a match that was not even as close as the score might indicate. All of Germany was up in arms and Klinsmann found himself under fire from all sides. Now he needed a big win over the Americans and he was forced to play the best 11 he could put on the field. Moreover, he had a simply message for his players who had looked so disinterested in Florence: Play hard or you might be watching the World Cup on television.

So, suddenly, the U.S.-Germany game became a mismatch. If I had been told Germany would play all of its starters and would win by three goals, I would have said that sounded about right.

One simply must things in perspective. One major U.S. newspaper said after the game, and has repeated subsequently, that the U.S. played the match with only "half of its starters." Well to my way of figuring "half" of 11 is either five or six. And in Dortmund, unless something disastrous happens in terms of injuries, there were only two and perhaps three Americans who figure to start in the World Cup opener against the Czech Republic on June 12 -- goalkeeper Kasey Keller, right back Steve Cherundolo and possibly defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni. A U.S. team of mostly reserves was going up against a motivated group of Germany's best.

Under the circumstances, what was really surprising was that the U.S. played the Germans even, at least on the scoreboard, until well into the second half. In reality, it was more a case of Germany playing down to the U.S. level rather than the Americans playing up to the Germans. Remember, the Germans were booed (actually whistled) off the field at halftime. If I were Klinsmann, I would be very worried by what I saw. Unless he gets some of his injured players back, and the team begins to gel, he might be able get it out of its weak opening-round Cup group, but he won't be able to contend in the later rounds.

If the purpose of the Germany match was for Arena to see which players will and will not be a help this summer, the game served this purpose almost to a tee. There were quite a few players in Dortmund who will not be returning to Germany with the U.S. for the World Cup.

The match did present a new question for Arena: what should he make of the play of Gregg Berhalter at center back? Four years ago in South Korea, Berhalter started against both Mexico in the World Cup Round of 16 and against Germany in the quarterfinals, playing well in both matches. He figured to be in a tight competition with Oguchi Onyewu as a potential starter for this June, matching his veteran's experience against the towering Onyewu's physical ability, but relative inexperience.

Now, Arena has to wonder if Berhalter's best days might not be behind him. If he takes only three central defenders in June, with Onyewu, a rejuvenated Eddie Pope, a healthy Cory Gibbs and Carlos Bocanegra, does Berhalter become a victim of the numbers game?

One thing the loss to Germany should do is put to rest for some time all the talk about the U.S.'s "depth." I have said for a long time that this depth is largely illusory. The Americans do have depth when it comes to playing Barbados, Trinidad & Tobago or Guatemala, but against a quality opponent in a meaningful situation, the U.S. has to put its 11 best on the field to have any chance of winning.

One reason that Arena seemed so embarrassed by the poor U.S. showing in Dortmund was that it will give Europeans more reason to look down on American soccer. But most Europeans knew the American team was a reserve side and they understand how much better a full American squad should be.

European-based SoccerTmes correspondent Chris Courtney, who speaks German, watched the official German network broadcast of the match and said the announcers kept reminding listeners from before the match to the post-game wrap-up that, except for Keller and Cherundolo, they were watching a group of American reserves. In fact, the announcers were incredulous the match was still scoreless at halftime.

So rather than being a "Debacle in Dortmund," as some have called the U.S. defeat, it was a valuable lesson for the Americans and for the coaching staff. The June 11 game against a probably young Jamaica side in Cary, N.C. -- the last match before Arena selects his 23-man roster for Germany -- will prove nothing. Against Germany, Arena might not have learned who will help him in the World Cup in June, beyond the few players who did well, all of whom figured on making the final roster anyway. What he did learn is who will not be of much help and that lesson made the match worthwhile.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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