Watching the back line of the United States defense Tuesday night, I was reminded of the old Johnny Cash song, “One Piece at a Time,” about the auto worker who brings home a part from the plant every night.
Only trouble is, none of the parts are for the same car.
Bruce Arena did the best he could from what he could get his hands on, down in Panama, and managed to leave town with a 1-1 draw and a crucial point in the battle to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. (My deep thanks to Telemundo and the great Andrés Cantor hosting Qualifier Night, on that fine network. Gracias, colegas.)
However, the four American defenders did not exactly mesh with each other or with the central midfield of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, who, however admirable in their own clunky ways, do not function together.
Great back fours function as a unit. That was the goal in the classic movie, “The Full Monty,” when the lads from the failed plant try to strip in unison, with the Arsenal trap in mind.
Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini worked together like a Lamborghini in the AC Milan/Azzurri defense. (How would I know? I’ve never been in a Lamborghini.) But the American lads just sputtered and free-lanced, none of them resembling Cherundolo or Pope or Balboa or Beasley (who was languishing on the U.S. bench.)
To be sure, the U.S. was missing John Brooks, who staggered from a sinus infection last Friday, and Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson, who are injured.
Arena did not have a lot of options. But Tim Ream was mostly clueless, and Omar Gonzalez will always be a big amiable lug, not what you want in the middle. Graham Zusi is just not a right back, and Jorge Villafaña was the best of the lot – but no DaMarcus Beasley, either. (I imagined Beasley making a jaunt or two down the left side, turning defense into offense.)
For all that, the U.S. carried the match on the road, partially because Christian Pulisic kept his wits together despite probably the worst personal attention he has ever received.
The Panama players were clearly out to mug him, early and often, and he gestured to the ref for a bit of justice, but he never stopped reclaiming the ball and finding open seams, juking the Panama defense to set up Clint Dempsey’s goal.
That young man -- 18 ½ -- has grown up in the Bundesliga. That great league, that great system, has done just what it promised: refined his game. But he will need better support from behind if the U.S. is to sputter and wheeze its way toward the World Cup.
The transmission was a fifty three
And the motor turned out to be a seventy three
And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone.
--lyrics: Wayne Kemp.
Welcome to World Cup 2022, the most absurd thing that the routinely absurd world of sports has ever produced.
Those extreme descriptions were what virtually the entire world, save for those who had walked off with bags of cash from Qatar, called the awarding of soccer’s greatest event to the incredibly tiny, incredibly wealthy country back in 2010.
Twelve years ago, many were convinced this event couldn’t possibly happen: staging the world’s biggest sporting event in a country the size of Connecticut, one with zero soccer culture and even less soccer infrastructure? The tournament couldn’t possibly take place in 120-degree heat, and FIFA, the governing body of soccer, most certainly wouldn’t upend football leagues around the world to change the traditional summer schedule, could it?
And, for God’s sake, what about the beer?
Those were just the logistical concerns. The moral concerns are far more distressing. FIFA, so busy paying lip service to equality, couldn’t possibly expect the world to embrace a country where you could go to prison for being gay, where women’s rights are severely curtailed and female victims of sexual assault could go to prison, charged with engaging in extramarital sex. And all those questions came before the global realization that the World Cup was being built on the backs of migrant labor: modern-day slaves held in Qatar with virtually no rights, low wages and no ability to leave. Migrants make up 90% of Qatar’s stated population of 3 million. The country’s native-born equal about 300,000, or roughly the size of Anaheim.
---Ann Killion, columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle.