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ANALYSIS

Arena Makes the Right Moves

June 18, 2002|PAUL CALIGIURI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Paul Caligiuri, whose decisive goal against Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 propelled the United States into the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, started every game for the U.S. in the 1990 and '94 World Cups. He made 110 appearances for the U.S. during his international career. He played six seasons in the MLS, the last five with the Galaxy, before retiring after last season to coach the men's and women's soccer teams at Cal Poly Pomona.

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Games between Mexico and the United States might not always bring out the highest quality soccer, but few national rivalries in the sport compare in terms of the intensity that players from both sides bring to the field. Each game is a war, not only of soccer but also egos. Personal and national pride are on the line. The players are familiar with each other, and in many cases there are friendships.

Until the games begin.

In that regard, Monday's game was typical. But the tension was multiplied because the venue was the World Cup finals.

The U.S. won this time because of coaching, not necessarily because Mexico's Javier Aguirre made mistakes, but because the United States' Bruce Arena didn't. The U.S. players have bought into Arena's system. While many coaches find a certain comfort point and refuse to budge from it, he has shown that he has no problem making changes to ensure the best matchups. He is not afraid to utilize the unprecedented depth he has. Nineteen players have played in four games.

Going from four defenders to three against the United States' archrival was a gutsy move that proved brilliant. He overloaded the midfield to counter the heart and strength of the Mexican team, which had played extremely well, particularly against Croatia and Italy.

The strategy crowded the space around the U.S. goal, forcing the Mexicans to attack wide, where they are less effective. John O'Brien, the American who plays for Ajax in Amsterdam, has been everything we expected him to be. The huge surprise has been the relentless defense and smart ball distribution of Pablo Mastroeni. This was supposed to be a glaring weakness after the injury to Chris Armas.

Tony Sanneh is playing the best soccer of his career. Not only did he shut down Portugal's Luis Figo, rated the world's best player by FIFA, Sanneh also is moving forward into the attack and sending pinpoint passes to the head of Brian McBride.

After the lack of firepower demonstrated in France four years ago, the U.S. has shown that it knows how to put the ball into the back of the net with flair and style. Just when Mexico had the run of play, the U.S. took the game in hand with a lethal strike by Landon Donovan.

The ability to absorb pressure from the other team and counter quickly and accurately is becoming a hallmark of the team. There are times when the U.S. knocks it around and holds the ball well, but the players are not consistent. Their style is more opportunistic. It is a quick, unpredictable and dangerous attack that comes from a variety of combinations.

When the U.S. does not control the ball, which seems to be most of the time, it forces the midfielders to run more and puts tremendous pressure on the defenders and the goalkeeper. They were up to the challenge against Mexico.

If there was a big question about the U.S. lineup, it was who would start in goal. An injury to Kasey Keller before the first game made things easier for Arena. The solid play of Brad Friedel has become the team's foundation. Even though he was far from technically perfect against Mexico, he accomplished his most important task--keeping the ball out of the net.

Against Germany, Arena will have to plan a totally different game tactically. The three-time world champions emphasize their attack down the wings, sending the ball into Miroslav Klose, who has five goals in this World Cup on headers.

So can we anticipate another magical adjustment to the lineup from Arena?

And can we anticipate that many Mexican-Americans will cheer for the U.S.?

They might be surprised again. This U.S. team fears no one and has a better chance than most people give them to advance to the semifinals.

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