- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

NUREMBERG, Germany — Blame referee Markus Merk for the United States going out of the World Cup.

No, blame FIFA for not seeding all 32 teams and the Americans getting a tough group.

Or FIFA’s mandate that referees give yellow cards for the slightest challenges.

Bruce Arena had a list of reasons why his players didn’t qualify for the last 16 of the World Cup by losing 2-1 to Ghana yesterday.

They didn’t include that the Americans weren’t good enough.

Or he made the wrong tactical decisions.

Or he chose the wrong lineup.

Or that maybe it’s time for him to go.

While Arena may have some justification that Merk’s decision to call a penalty against defender Oguchi Onyewu was harsh, his players didn’t do enough to beat a team rated far below them in the FIFA rankings (48).

The penalty in first-half injury time allowed Stephen Appiah to drive home the winner. While Ghana made it to the second round as Group E runner-up to Italy, the Americans finished last with one point.

Clint Dempsey’s first-half equalizer was the only goal scored by an American in the three games. The other U.S. strike was an own-goal by an Italian defender.

For all the fighting qualities the Americans showed in the 1-1 draw with Italy and against Ghana, there’s simply no getting round a lack of technical ability in their play.

Arena’s tactics were also puzzling. Eddie Lewis, who started the tournament as a defender, wound up as a left winger. DaMarcus Beasley played too deep and Eddie Johnson, often a sparkplug, didn’t make an appearance until the second half. It was impossible to tell who was supposed to be the attacking support for Brian McBride.

While the Ghanaians celebrated advancement in their World Cup debut, the Americans went over to thank their massed ranks of loyal and noisy fans for their outstanding support. Maybe they were apologizing, too.

Although McBride hit the post, Ghanaian goalkeeper Richard Kingson was rarely forced to make saves. Landon Donovan, who had one of his worst games in the U.S. shirt, fired a close-range shot yards high and wide, while crosses sailed over teammates or behind them.

“It’s not Bruce,” Donovan said. “Bruce is the best coach I’ve ever had. If we don’t perform, it’s on us.”

In part, certainly.

Appointed in October 1998 after the Americans finished dead last of the 32 teams at the World Cup, Arena was in charge of the side that made it to the quarterfinals four years later in South Korea and Japan. The team also climbed as high as fourth in the FIFA rankings, although that’s not necessarily an accurate guide to the Americans’ ability.

The 4-1 pre-Cup loss to Germany put things into perspective, as did the 3-0 beating by the Czech Republic in the first group game 10 days ago. The tie with the Italians was a big performance, bearing in mind the Americans had Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope ejected and played the last 41 minutes with nine men against 10 Italians.

Arena was furious with that referee, too, and also Merk for giving a yellow card that put Ghana’s star player, Michael Essien, out of his team’s second-round game.

“The insistence on yellow cards is crazy, taking good players out of this tournament,” he said. “Essien out the next game is unfair. His tackle was actually good. This mandate to have to show yellow cards has gone overboard. And I feel bad for Essien. They need him in the next game. He’s a great player. But that was certainly a mandate. I think it’s wrong.”

Arena said his team was always going to struggle to reach the last 16 because it was grouped with European powerhouses Italy and the Czech Republic. His view is the Americans should have been allowed to avoid them and he suggests FIFA seed all 32 teams in future World Cups.

The result and performance against the Ghanaians might have set the U.S. back in the eyes of the soccer world, but Arena sees nothing wrong with the team.

“I think we continue to get better,” he said. “Despite the two losses I think we demonstrated that we could play. … I’m proud to have been in this group and have survived into Day 3.”

His contract is up at the end of this year and U.S. Soccer might be thinking of a change.

“Everyone needs to take a step back and breathe a little bit and figure out what makes the most sense,” said Arena’s agent, Richard Motzkin.

Maybe it’s worth asking their German counterparts about their plans for Juergen Klinsmann. A World Cup winner as a player, Klinsmann is a big name in the game and has impressed with his remodeling of the German national team.

And he lives in California.

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