wherein DF travels to Deutschland for the 2006 world cup to follow the US men's national soccer team

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

US 1:0 Poland

One of the most painful memories I have of last WC is the third group game. We were sitting pretty, needing only a tie against Poland to guarantee an appearance in the Round of 16. Our Polish opponents had looked wretched in their first two matches (despite much pre-Cup puffery in the Europress touting them as dark-horse faves), losing 2-0 to South Korea and then getting stuffed 4-0 by Portugal. Confidence ran high. Even the bookies on the continent, who so consistently underrate the Nats, had us as heavy favorites to win and advance.

Then in about five minutes, the roof caved in. Emanuel Olisadebe (Poland's naturalized Nigerian forward) scored a weird goal off a fracas following a corner. Landon Donovan had a goal chalked off for a dubious foul. Then Pavel Krzyszalowicz (sp?) executed a beautiful though heartbreaking move that culminated in a second Polish goal and effectively killed the game off with eighty-five minutes to go. The team and all US fans spent the rest of the game watching with half an eye on the Portugal-South Korea match, which miraculously ended in favor of the Korean hosts, sending us into the second round via the back door.

I don't know if it's coincidence, but since then we've gotten three chances to avenge that loss to Poland. We handled them in Lodz, 1-0, back in early 2004 thanks to a DeMarcus Beasely goal, then outplayed them in Chicago but barely salvaged a 1-1 draw when Carlos Bocanegra scored on a late header from a corner. But those games were--from what I can tell--against B-level versions of the Poland side, and weren't taken that seriously because they weren't in preparation for any major tournament.

Today, the US and Poland squared off for the fourth time in three years, with the series knotted at 1-1-1, and this game was serious. Both teams brought their A-list players, both teams took the occasion seriously as one of the few opportunities to gear up for this summer's World Cup (Poland qualified second out of England's group, and is in Group A with hosts Germany, as well as Costa Rica and Ecuador), and the friendly was staged in Kaiserslautern, one of twelve German World Cup venues to give a taste of the real event.

Before the game, I felt optimistic. Our three previous frendlies had seen a skein of victories and an onslaught of goals (12 all told, something close to a USMNT record). And Poland is a solid side with some quality players, but they're not a glittering, threatening, storied side with expectations of winning the Cup. They are, in other words, daunting but beatable. I predicted a 2-1 win. Then the first half started.

It's not that we were awful, we just weren't that good. To be fair, neither was Poland. Both teams looked as though they were bent on embodying the maxim that it's easier to destroy than to create. To be fair, though, the only team that put together any sustained attacks was Poland, but our defense was up to each of them. Keller came out of goal a couple times to scuttle some chances, and the whole backline showed well (I love that with Onyewu we finally have someone who intimidates opponents). There was a late Dolo free kick that went close, but for the most part the only good thing to take away is that our defense is good enough that they can keep a quality opponent from scoring even when our midfield is getting run through like Paris Hilton (the jokes will improve, I promise). And while I was less than enthused after 45, I think the defensive solidity is an excellent sign for the future.

At the outset of the second half, Howard and Bocanegra replaced Keller and Berhalter, and I said to myself "now when we lose we can blame it on the subs." Shortly after, Lewis put in a nice cross from the left, Twellman challenged, the Polish goalkeeper punched poorly, we got a lucky ricochet off TT's head, and Dempsey ran around a sloth-footed defender to head in. A blizzard ensued and it ended up being the only goal of the game. My pre-game optimism had been justified; my halftime pessimism was misguided. Even Tim Howard looked solid in the net. I'll be damned, another win.

Admittedly, we didn't exactly light Poland on fire (unlikely to create any heat in the subzero temps). However, as Celo Balboa hyperactively repeated again and again, this game looked much like the World Cup will, and was a much more meaningful test than the previous friendlies against weaker opponents in familiar venues. And even though we were outplayed in the first half, the defense showed up and did a nice job; Poland never really looked like scoring thanks to the back four and Keller. And in the second half, we administered the 1-0 lead perfectly, looking throughout like the more dangerous team and deserving (if not richly meriting) the fourth straight win. There are points of concern (in particular, LD looking useless as an A-mid without a good supporting D-mid), but on the whole it's hard for me to find reasons not to be happy about this one.

(Oh, and by the way, all my posts will not be of this inordinate length and tediousness. It's the soccer obsessive in me. I can't help it.)


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