Change in attitude required
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Czech nation has showed an uncanny knack for making the difficult look easy. They did it with their revolution. They did it again with their divorce from Slovakia. And that effortlessness certainly applied to Monday's World Cup match against the United States, as the Czechs took apart the Americans 3-0 in a game whose score was every bit a reflection of the events on the field.
The U.S. appeared to put up little resistance in the loss, but was it down to Czech brilliance or American ineptitude? The answer is a lot of both. The inspirational play of Tomas Rosicky and Pavel Nedved is something that the U.S. can't even begin to match. Rosicky's 36th-minute goal, an absolute dart from 30 yards out, was a moment of sheer brilliance. Ditto for Nedved's defense-splitting pass that setup Rosicky's second tally with 14 minutes left.
It highlights the fact that for all of the talk of the Landon Donovans and the DaMarcus Beasleys, the truth is that the U.S. not only lacks that kind of skill, but that attacking mentality as well. It takes a certain ruthlessness to even contemplate taking the kind of shot that Rosicky potted. And it was that mind-set that was absent on Monday, which is perhaps what was most disturbing about the performance.
"We needed guys to move and want the ball more," said captain Claudio Reyna. "It just seemed like other guys were looking to everyone else to make the plays. You can't do that. Everyone has to be brave and want the ball."
That lack of courage was most evident in the play of Beasley and Donovan. Beasley struggled with his touch almost from the get-go, and more often than not, killed U.S. attacks with some horrific passes. And Donovan, after having some bright moments early in the first half, saw little of the ball in the second.
"Not enough players took the initiative," added head coach Bruce Arena. "We didn't get too many good performances. That's why we lost."
Granted, when Jan Koller scored after just five minutes, it was the Czechs who were put in the position of being able to dictate the pace, and they did that to devastating effect. But that was a reason for the U.S. to put its energy level into overdrive, not leave it in neutral, which is where it remained for most of the game.
The lack of grit displayed was also evident in the American's inability to win loose balls. Repeatedly, the likes of Nedved, Rosicky, and Tomas Galasek were first to pounce when an attack from either side broke down. Some of this is down to anticipation, but it's also about attitude.
"When you show up on the field and you compete and you battle and you lose a goal like the one Rosicky scored; then you hit the post and it doesn't go in, then you sit back and say, 'Well, [that's] it,'" said goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "But it's just disappointing that we didn't put them under pressure and compete for second balls the way we can."
Regaining that competitive fire and repairing his team's confidence will be among Arena's biggest challenges as he prepares the U.S. for Saturday's game against Italy. With the Italians claiming a 2-0 victory over Ghana on Monday, the sense is that the Americans' World Cup adventure has ended almost as soon as it's begun. But Arena, while acknowledging the challenge, is conceding nothing.
"We have to make sure that this Czech Republic team doesn't beat us twice," said Arena. "If we can put this game behind us, and prepare our team for Italy ... we'll obviously watch [their game] and try to put together a scouting report that will give our team a chance to win."
One can expect some major changes to the lineup for the next match, but they'll only be successful if they're accompanied by a change in attitude as well.
Kasey Keller, 4 - He waited eight years for this? Granted, there wasn't a thing he could have done about any of the goals, but the fact that he picked the ball out of his net three times has got to leave a bitter taste.
Steve Cherundolo, 3.5 - Arena said afterwards that his substitution of Cherundolo was tactical, but given Cherundolo's poor distribution out of the back, it was a switch that the head coach didn't have to sweat over.
Eddie Pope, 4 - There were worse performances on Monday, but Pope didn't cover himself in glory, either. It was telling that every time Pope was matched up against Koller, he was badly out-muscled. It was not the kind of performance that the U.S was looking for.
Oguchi Onyewu, 5 - One of the few players who showed up. One could quibble with his positioning on the first goal, as well as being caught square on the last one, but he not only won most of the head balls that were sent his way, but he came out on top in some key challenges on the ground as well.
Eddie Lewis, 3.5 - Another player whose passing was just shocking at times and he must bear some of the responsibility for the first goal, in which Zdenek Grygera was left wide open on his side, and ultimately crossed the ball for Koller's goal. He'll likely retain his place because there really isn't anyone else.
DaMarcus Beasley, 3 - Right midfield was where American attacks went to die. If he starts against Italy, it will be a major upset.
Pablo Mastroeni, 3.5 - When he wasn't slipping on the turf, he was a step slow to pressure the ball, and he didn't seem to win any of the second balls that the U.S. needed in order to have a chance.
Claudio Reyna, 5.5 - This guy just seems snake-bit when it comes to scoring goals in World Cups, as he hit the post just like he did back in '98. Reyna was one of the few players who at least wanted the ball, but was probably guilty of playing too deep. He'll need to get closer to goal against the Italians.
Bobby Convey, 4.5 - His runs didn't always come off, and his crossing was subpar, but Convey was one of the only players in the attacking half to play with any courage. He certainly showed better than some of his more experienced teammates.
Landon Donovan, 4 - Had some bright moments in the first half, including his setup of Reyna's ill-fated shot, but he faded badly in the second. Four years after a sparkling World Cup debut, it appears that Donovan's game hasn't progressed enough to have an impact at the highest level.
Brian McBride, 3.5 - McBride was starved of service, but struggled with his passing and hold-up play as well. He often seemed to be operating on an island, and he will need to either fix his spacing with Donovan, or be paired with more of an out-and-out forward.
John O'Brien, 5 - If O'Brien has a pulse prior to the next match against Italy, then he'll start in Mastroeni's place. He delivered a solid performance, and even got in some good tackles as well.
Eddie Johnson, 6 - The only forward to be truly dangerous, as he just missed with a left-footed effort in the 70th minute and had another effort blocked just a minute later. Johnson certainly showed that he wasn't overawed in his World Cup debut, as he was active throughout.
Josh Wolff, NR - Wolff had a goal-bound effort blocked with just minutes to go, but otherwise, didn't make much of an impression.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org