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Jun 28, 2006

Raising the bar

As the first half of the Brazil-Ghana game ended in Dortmund, Germany, on Tuesday, a colleague wondered aloud how many shots the Black Stars had attempted. It seemed Ghana had been firing at the Brazilian net pretty much at will.

The Brazilians took a 3-0 victory, but Ghana displayed a great capacity to create offense, with 17 shots, seven on goal. Ghana lacked finishers, but its offensive propensity contrasted the lack of a U.S. attack in the World Cup. Why were the Black Stars able to produce countless shots and the Stars and Stripes unable to do so?

The Ghanaians were comfortable on the ball; they played effortlessly through Stephen Appiah in the midfield; and they would have presented an even greater threat with Michael Essien, who was suspended.

Ghana never was overmatched in the World Cup, not even against Brazil. The Black Stars did not experience extreme lows in their performance. Despite a lack of experience at this level, Ghana was able to take on every foe without having to change its style of play. Ghana lost to Italy (2-0) in its opener, but forced Italy to raise its performance level to such an extent that the Italians suffered a letdown in their second game. Ghana set the tone against the Czechs (a 2-0 victory) and kept the pressure on for the entire match. Against the U.S. (2-1 win), Ghana appeared lively and vibrant, and this sharpness helped make the difference. Ghana had energy to spare against Brazil in delivering its fourth successive consistent performance.

Ghana did have weaknesses in its game. The Black Stars were too aggressive in the tackle and failed to use the left side of the field against Brazil. But they displayed many of the qualities the U.S. has failed to develop: the tactical awareness and technical ability to play at a fast pace; players with the agility, flexibility and skill to take on the best midfielders in the world on their terms; true driving forces such as Appiah and Essien, who can create and defend.

Does the U.S. have players like that? I believe it does, but they simply do not emerge in the U.S. soccer system. Although there is a great deal of variety in player types and playing styles at almost every level in the U.S., there is an institutionalized resistance to this variety in the collegiate game and the MLS.

After the disastrous exit of the U.S. from the 1990 World Cup, the U.S. Soccer Federation started on an ambitious search for candidates to replace Bob Gansler. The names mentioned included Franz Beckenbauer and Sven Goran Eriksson, both of whom were overqualified for the task.

Then, Velibor "Bora" Milutinovic arrived from Serbia via Mexico and Costa Rica.

Milutinovic was a perfect fit for the U.S., an adventurously gregarious gypsy who could be simultaneously accommodating and obtuse in several languages. More important, Milutinovic related to the outcast/underdog status of U.S. soccer, and he knew how to defeat the Mexicans.

Now, the U.S. has few problems with Mexico and no problems with El Salvador, a two-time World Cup qualifier, or Guatemala. But countries that have a Caribbean influence present disproportionate difficulties for the U.S. The Americans have gone to the wire or lost against Haiti and Honduras recently. There is no disgrace in this. But, until the U.S. can figure out how to out-finesse these teams, it will continue to falter in Europe, where the players are their physical match and are superior tactically and technically.

When Milutinovic took the U.S. job, Mexico was setting the standard of play in the region.

Now, the bar has been raised for the U.S. Whoever coaches the U.S. in the next four years will have to figure out how to play against teams such as the Czech Republic, Ghana and Italy.

There are plenty of teams to practice against in a region with Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama. Yes, the U.S. finished ahead of Costa Rica in qualifying, has never lost to Jamaica and has lost only once to Panama and the competitive level of Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama cannot compare to the best of Europe. However, such play does provide a gauge because those countries present enough European- (and African-) style physicality, combined with skill, to test the U.S.

The fact that the Americans struggled for long periods of time in qualifying against regional opponents that challenged them physically was a portent for the struggles encountered in Germany.

Unlike four years ago, the U.S. can learn from this World Cup experience.

Bruce Arena was among the first to realize reaching the quarterfinals in Korea also created a false sense of the status of the U.S. The FIFA rankings, which placed the U.S. as high as No. 4 in the world, added to the distorted perception of the national team.

After the innocuous exit of the U.S. from the '98 Cup, Arena was the perfect choice to take over the national team. At the time, Arena was considered too outspoken for the position and the odds were on Carlos Queiroz, an updated version of Milutinovic who would go on to coach Portugal's national team and Real Madrid and become an assistant coach at Manchester United.

Arena was the longest-serving coach in the 2006 World Cup, but the U.S. exit showed his time could be up after eight years in charge. The advancement of a national team program is a slow, evolutionary progress, and Arena brought the U.S. to the next level. The U.S. achievements in the 2002 World Cup placed the national team on the soccer map and will be Arena's legacy to the country.

The U.S. has yet to produce a coach the equal of Arena. So, the national team will have to consider a foreign coach, should Arena depart. A couple of months ago, this space nominated Juergen Klinsmann as a possible candidate. The list of the top 10 scorers in World Cup history includes two U.S. residents -- Klinsmann (California) and Teofilo Cubillas (Florida) -- and they should be involved in the national team program in some way.

Guus Hiddink could yet be had, at least after his contract expires in Russia. Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari would be an interesting candidate. The program must continue its evolution.

In 1991, the U.S. was not ready for a big-time, high-profile national team coach. Now it is.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.