3QD’s World Cup Analyst Alex Cooley On the Devastation that was the US-Czech Republic Game

[Alex writes] We are already calling it the “Gelsenkirchen Massacre” – not original, but you try finding something that rhymes with this town’s name. Yes, yesterday Cooley and all the rabidly delusional US supporters were rudely taken off their happy pills and returned to planet Earth by the ruthlessly efficient but not unlikable Czechs.

The setting could not have been more congenial. Gelsenkirchen is, er..a nice, medium sized-town (not that uncommon in Germany) with a park, river, central shopping street and lots of sausage and beer stands put out for festive occasions. The locals and the Czech fans seemed quite perplexed at the sight of boisterous Yanks chanting soccer songs all afternoon. We were already winning the psychological war and it was still only three in the afternoon..

Being a US soccer fan overseas can be tricky. On balance, I think we tend to be a bit more self-aware than most supporters. There’s a very fine line between showing spirited pride and being perceived as the ugly superpower. Between acknowledging to locals that, yes, most people in the USA still prefer baseball (cue broken record about soccer in the US) and maybe gently pushing them on some of their Euro-centric perceptions about the global game (more on this in a future thread). On my train ride down from Berlin I observed a group of recent Yank college grads grappling with some of these issues as they clutched some blank card board signs and magic markers. These young ambassadors were going to the match and had this dilemma: what can we actually write so as to not be perceived as jerks, yet still try and needle the other team? After many candidates, they finally decided on: “CZECH FOOD IS TERRIBLE: USA 2006!” Not too obnoxious and certainly not unfounded.

After a couple of hours of the pre-game we headed towards the stadium which was still a good 7 km from the town center. Jam-packed onto trams and buses like sardines, we all pondered possible tactical formations and discussed where we should conduct our post-game celebrations. I nervously held my breath as I got to ticket control, hoping that my scalped ticket would clear the computerized system (they all have digital chips in them) and I wouldn’t get asked for ID. Everything went smoothly and soon after I bought a jersey and was downing a beer or two from the various stalls outside the arena.

The stadium in Gelsenkirchen was magnificent – it looked brand new with a retractable roof that created deafening acoustics. The pitch was a uniform lush dark green that actually seemed to be mounted on a moveable platform. I had a great seat too, 12 rows behind the corner flag. We were outnumbered about 5 to 1 by Czech supporters, but as they were wearing red (our color too) it didn’t seem too bad. Some eurotrash dance versions of “I Will Survive” and “All Together Now” blared through the arena and got us jacked up for the introduction of the players. As it turned out, something like Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” would have been more appropriate.

The game itself..well, what can I say. Horrible effort by most of our players and horrendous tactics by our manager. Let me put it this way: we typically play well, not because of our technical ability (which is inferior to elite teams), but because we play quick, aggressive and smart football. We did none of these yesterday. In the fourth minute I got a great view of 6-8 Czech forward Jan Koller (yes, the one who I predicted would be snuffed out no problem by our central back) steamrolling forward to smash home an uncontested pinpoint cross from the right. The fact that our left back Eddie Lewis had been stranded somewhere between Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen on the play was not an encouraging sign regarding our mental sharpness and defensive positioning.

We tried to recover and passed it around a bit, but the flow of the game now played right into the Czechs’ gameplan. They were perfectly content with ceding possession (not our strong suit), defending with 9 behind the ball and then, when one of our moves broke down, counterattacking in Mongolian-style mauling raids of groups of 4 and 5 . Pavel Nedved was spraying the ball at will while Tomas Roscky, who should now be considered the second world class Czech playmaker, was buzzing everywhere and hitting laser shots. Having obviously done their homework much better than we had, the Czech midfield cut off all connections between our defense and holding players and Landon Donovan who was disastrously employed as a supporting striker rather than the attacking midfield role.

At 1-0 captain Claudio Reyna, from perhaps our best move of the game, latched onto clever a lay-off from Landon Donovan and hit a decent 22-yard shot that beat Cech (the appropriately-named Czech goalkeeper), but bounced off of the left-hand post. Several younger yanks at the beer halls afterwards lamented that if that had gone in, we would have tied and then gone on to do blah,blah, blah..As an elder statesman now, it was my duty to remind everyone that it was not “unlucky” – Reyna had hit the same post, from the same position in another crucial World Cup game – that horrible defeat against Iran in 1998. Yes, Claudio is a nice player..but he never has had the pop or killer instinct to make him a truly winning player. “Close” does not earn World Cup points..

Not that this mattered anyway – shortly after the simply excellent Rosicky let fly a 35-yard Exocet missile that flew into Kasey Keller’s top corner and that was that..the second half was played out according to form with the Czech midfield running rampant. The shamefully out-thought Bruce Arena tried to make some adjustments and brought in young striker Eddie Johnson who was the only bright spot for our team. I say shameful because Arena – against his very own philosophy – played Beasley and Donovan out of their “natural” positions and offered no quirks or surprises to throw at Brueckner, his Jedi-master like Czech counterpart. The final 3-0 I thought was a fair reflection of the game. The Czechs probably won’t have the legs or enough quality substitutes to play like this for 6 more games, but if they do, they will contend for the trophy.

One final observation and I’m afraid its another Reyna jibe. After soccer games, players habitually swap jerseys with their positional counterparts, usually after tough, hard fought struggles. Well, no sooner had the final whistle put us out of our misery than Reyna ran towards Nedved, grinned and pointed to his sweaty shirt that he was obviously coveting. Given the course of the game Nedved should have charged him for it and given an autograph to boot. Please Claudio, get your butt back in the locker room or at least take a minute to acknowledge the fans that suffered through this calamity, but don’t pretend that the performance merits any respect.

We all left the stadium a bit subdued – but its not like we lost a close game or got cheated. We were outclassed by a magnificent team and still soaked up a fantastic atmosphere and experience. I was obviously dejected, but still thrilled to have finally seen a World Cup game in person. The post-game commentary went on back in the center of town well into the night (at least my hotel reservation had held up for all these months). Most yanks were seriously ticked off, some were philosophical. Almost all were furious at Arena and the play of Beasley, Donovan and Lewis in particular. Ditto me..The Czech fans were quite nice to us and didn’t rub it in the way we probably would have. I think that made me even madder..

So, after a leisurely morning in sunny Gelsenkirchen I’m now back on a train to Berlin to try and catch the Brazil game tonight on the large screen at the Brandenburg gate. Mark has typically weaseled a ticket for it, so maybe he can write something more this week about the joys of watching the Team Nike-Samba circus from up close.

In terms of Team USA’s immediate prospects, yesterday was absolutely devastating. We got thrashed by a significant number of goals (which is a used as a tie-breaker after wins/losses) and Italy beat Ghana. Going into Saturday’s game against Italy, a 3-time World Cup winner and one of the pre-tournament favorites, this means the following scenarios:

1. If we lose, we go home. Our match against Ghana will be meaningless except for determining 3rd and 4th places in the group (odds on that we will be last).

2. If we Tie Italy, we will still technically be in it (regardless of the other result, but please root for a Ghana win), but without much realistic hope to make-up our massive goal difference in the last game.

3. If we beat Italy, then we have a realistic, but not certain, chance of qualifying for the knockout stages IF we can also beat Ghana on the 22nd.

As you can imagine, scenario #3 does not appear likely given current form.

So we’re down, but not entirely out – let’s just hope we see a bit more aggression and fight on Saturday, otherwise this will be a long 4 years for us Yank supporters.

[For the record, Alex titled his email: “Czech Mate! Cooley Eats Major Humble pie.”]