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Saturday, 15 June, 2002, 18:19 GMT 19:19 UK
Mixed report card for Team USA
O'Brien got the US off to a dream start vs Portugal
O'Brien got the US off to a dream start vs Portugal

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So, have the US finally arrived on the world football stage?

A stunning win over Portugal and a draw against South Korea was enough to push the Americans into the knockout phase of the World Cup, but, as their disappointing loss to Poland revealed, this team still has a long way to go.

The fact is the US have turned in about one half of decent football across three matches - 30 minutes against Portugal and bits and pieces in the two other matches.

Their main weakness is defending. This team defends as badly as anyone in the tournament, save perhaps the Saudis.

What makes this surprising is that man-for-man, they have talent in defence.

Tony Sanneh has been a revelation at right-back, using his size to muscle smaller players off the ball, and has given the team an added dimension in attack.

Sanneh has been his side's best defender
Sanneh has been his side's best defender
Frankie Hejduk has been less consistent on the left side, but has shown flashes. After picking up his second yellow card, though, he will miss the Mexico game.

That means the likely return of Martinique-born David Regis, who has failed to impress just about every time he has donned a US jersey.

Like Hejduk, central defender Eddie Pope has had an up-and-down tournament.

He has looked strong in the air and with the ball at his feet, but tends to give opposing strikers far too much space.

And then there is Jeff Agoos.

The 34-year old Agoos was what might best be called a 'sentimental choice' for coach Bruce Arena at the other centre-back slot.

Arena coached Agoos to championships at the University of Virginia and DC United, but no one (except maybe Arena) has every confused Agoos with a world-class defender.

He is a throwback to US defenders of old: big, slow and extremely uncomfortable anytime the ball comes near him.

Mathis celebrates his equaliser against S Korea
Mathis celebrates his equaliser against S Korea
Of the six first-round goals the team conceded, he was directly responsible for three of them and partially responsible for another two.

He went down with an injury against Poland, the apparent result of a projectile thrown from the crowd (no doubt from an American fan), but if he steps anywhere near the field against Mexico there will be calls for Arena's head.

Expect the steady Carlos Llamosa to step for him.

The other glaring defensive problems have come from the midfield.

While DeMarcus Beasley and John O'Brien have done the job, the rest of the midfield has lacked consistency.

Landon Donovan has shown a lot of flair as an attacking midfielder, but has been adequate at best defensively.

Captain Reyna has been below par so far
Captain Reyna has been below par so far
Earnie Stewart opened with a strong performance against Portugal, but after sitting out the South Korea game with an injury, he returned against Poland on paper only, as he failed to make any impact on the pitch.

But perhaps most disappointing has been Claudio Reyna.

Treated like a sacred cow by the US soccer establishment, Reyna has been a non-factor so far.

For the guy who is supposed to be the Americans' playmaker, he has not created much, and he has shown little willingness to get stuck in defensively.

Offensively, the US have shown some spark.

They looked surprisingly potent in the attacking third during their first two matches, but Poland exposed their lack of imagination.

Brian McBride won nearly every ball in the air through the first two matches, but marked by the big, smart Polish defenders, he was ineffective.

Still, with the speed of Donovan, Beasley, Stewart and striker Clint Mathis, the US should have been giving the Poles fits.

But they seemed puzzled as to how to take advantage of their pace. Instead of drawing the Poles out of their defensive shell, the US knocked ball after ball into the penalty area without any obvious success.

Friedel has been in magnificent form
Friedel has been in magnificent form
In the second half, Arena removed McBride to encourage his team to keep the ball on the grass, but his players did not take the hint.

The one bright spot for the Americans has been their goaltending.

Brad Friedel practically earned the team their point against South Korea single-handedly, and his positioning and shot-stopping have been excellent, as seen by his two saved penalties.

But this is not a team that is strong enough to simply sit back and hope their goalie can keep it close.

Of course, by losing to Poland and finishing second in the group, the US have drawn the best lot they could ask for in the second round: a date with regional rivals Mexico.

Granted, this is not the same Mexico that have fallen to the Americans in four of their last five meetings, but those recent results will boost US confidence.

And the way this World Cup has gone, that and a little luck might be all it takes to press their unlikely cause into the quarter-finals.


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GROUP D
  P GD PTS
SOUTH KOREA 3 +3 7
USA 3 -1 4
PORTUGAL 3 +2 3
POLAND 3 -4 3

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