There's a saying out there about the importance of finishing. I can't think of the author off the top of my head, but you've probably heard it before: "It's not how you start, it's how you finish."
That might as well be the mantra of the U.S. Men's National Team. Because if yesterday's match taught us anything, it seems as if they’ve taken the advice to heart, but horrendously misplaced the application.
For the first eighty minutes, the Yanks chased around the Dutch as if the Oranje had stolen the golden ticket or something. The Americans played without swagger. They were tentative. It was disheartening. Bloopers ensued. Robbie Findley forgot how to finish. Tim Howard looked like he was auditioning for Limp Bizkit lead singer. And Jonathan Bornstein - bless his heart - picked the worst possible match to have his worst possible match. So yeah, that was the first hour and twenty minutes. Must See TV it was not.
But around the 81st or 82nd minute, the Yanks finally warmed up and began to get their swole on. DeMarcus Beasley, whom we last saw back in June get basted by Brazil, was a man on fire - in a good way, this time. His looping crosses found teammates. He held the ball. Yes, you read that right. DeMarcus Beasley held the ball. It must be 2002 all over again.
With the minutes winding down, Alejandro Bedoya and Clarence Goodson buzzed about the box. Jozy threatened. The goal that evaded the Yanks against in their previous tries against the Dutch appeared imminent. It was. Eighty-ninth minute - Beasley to Bocanegra, deficit halved. Unfortunately for the visitors, it was too little, too late.
Where was this in the first half? One might say the Dutch were probably tired. And that very well could have been the case. Except for one thing: that doesn't make any sense.* The Oranje had already used their full compliment of subs by the 81st minute. Half of the their field players were fresh legs. The Dutch starting XI that remained certainly hadn't spent the entire match running down the ball the way the U.S. had. They should not have been tired. Whatever it was, the Dutch looked lethargic. And the U.S. took advantage.
(*Unless, of course, they were Amsterdamming it up the night before.)
Some of that may be attributable to the fact that the U.S., for all its technical shortcomings, has athletes. They have the stamina and endurance to grind it out for ninety. They can chase all day.
But I think it’s something else. And it has nothing to do with fitness or conditioning. Quite the opposite. It’s mental. The Yanks don’t know how to pick the fight. They either don’t know or are too scared to set the tone. They wait it out. And when the opponent is either tired or lackadaisical, they magically find their bearings.
So it only makes sense that the Yanks always seem "awaken" near the closing bell. It’s because they refuse to strike first. They seem to run and run and run some more defending the first hour or so. Then, when the opponent is worn and weary – which typically happens when a team handily obliterates a defense - they pounce. But here's the problem: come eighty minutes, it's often much too late. The deficit is too steep and the time is too near.
Now you might say that, hey, at least the Yanks got a goal. Indeed...at least they got a goal. But, at least they got a goal will not win you many trophies. And at least they got a goal certainly won't get you anywhere close to a World Cup.
There’s no doubt that the Yanks know how to “finish” a match. But it's painfully obvious they still don't know how to start one. They play without initiative. They allow the game to come to them, rather than taking the game by the horns. Defend now, attack later.
Forget the previous bit of conventional wisdom. Sometimes, it is about how you start. How you start determines how you finish. Always.
Setting the tone - dictating the match - is something the Yanks better learn in hurry if they don't want a repeat of 2006.