We’re 48 hours away from U.S.-England and I’m about ready to shit myself. I haven’t been able to sleep in days, awakened by various nightmares of Aaron Lennon bearing down on Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson trying to track Wayne Rooney. It is my logical mind breaking through the veneer of fantasy I’ve been trying to construct.
That fantasy is that the U.S. can win this game. By any reasonable analysis, the Three Lions win by two goals. At least.
You didn’t come here for reason though, did you? Good. It’s often been said that one of the strengths of Yanks is their self-belief, even in the face of substantial odds. So let’s go ahead an perpetuate that stereotype. Here’s how the U.S. can win:
It’s all on England. They are burdened by their history, agitated by their fans, preyed upon by the media. No bit of minutiae is left unexamined and the entire country has been in giddy anticipation since the Group draw was announced. Suffice to say, the pundits don’t see any cause for concern.
The pressure has begun to assert itself. See Rooney’s yellow card against some South African pub team. Or Capello’s rants at both his players and photographers. Perhaps most damning, the England manager has restricted his side’s access to their notorious WAGs, allowing them only to see each other on the day after games, thus hindering a pleasurable way to release some steam (so to speak).
Rio Ferdinand is out of the tournament and Gareth Barry is not available for the U.S. game, so Capello needs to find some solutions in the Engine Room. Either Ledley King or Jamie Carragher will start in defense for Ferdinand, but the picture is less clear regarding Barry’s replacement and if you’re a U.S. fan, you’re hoping that it’s Steven Gerrard.
Not because Gerrard is a downgrade, but because he’s never formed an effective partnership with Frank Lampard in the middle of the park. Gerrard is much more effective for the national team out wide or in the free position behind a lone striker (see Torres, Fernando at Liverpool). Together, Stevie and Lamps spend to much time staring at each other trying to figure out which is going forward (You? No, please be my guest. No, after you). If Capello prefers an out-of-form Michael Carrick in the destroyer role (or the inexperienced James Milner), the drop-off from Barry will be mitigated by a more fluid attack.
The U.S. most frequently gets into trouble when they are not able to release the pressure on their defense. Look, we all know they’ll play conservatively, will hunker down with eight men behind the ball and hope to counter. But a vital aspect of playing defensively is being able to move the ball out of the back and string a few passes together instead of just hoofing it long and re-setting.
The primary issue with this is Coach Bob Bradley’s insistence on playing two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle (he’d argue he doesn’t, but he’s wrong). Neither Michael Bradley or Rico Clark (the expected starters) are adept at selecting good outlet options (or even delivering a good pass). They will need to step up, get the ball wide to Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan to run into space, space which should be there as England sends Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson forward on the flanks. Aside from giving a breather to the back-line, a few jaunts up the pitch might limit the frequency of runs from the marauding English outside backs.
4. Moment of Brilliance
The U.S., collectively, faces a talent chasm roughly the size of the Mariana Trench. But the side does have individuals capable of world class play (see: Dempsey, Clint v. Juventus or Stoke). One unexpected strike could change the tenor of the game.
5. Calamity James
The one position where the U.S. does have an advantage is in goal. While David James has largely overcome his penchant for the odd howler, he will never truly shed the label. One gaffe can alter a team’s chances (see: Seaman, David v. Ronaldinho). I expect Bradley to insist the U.S. test James from any distance, put a few on frame early and see how he deals with the occasion, and the much-discussed new ball.
It’s a role the U.S. relishes and its World Cup history is pock-marked with the corpses of more talented teams. Portugal in ’02, Colombia in ’94, even the man-down draw with Italy four years ago. The club does not lack for fighting spirit or a confidence in each other, both of which will grow the longer the game remains in doubt. The first twenty minutes will be key as England will come out roaring and the Yanks will need some time to settle their nerves. If they can weather that storm, will the game into their kind of rhythm, avoid unnecessary cards and fouls in their defensive third, then it’s game on.
In the end, a loss by a single goal would be a good result for the U.S. in terms of getting out of the group, which is the primary goal, after all. But dang it’d be sweet to win. They’ve pulled these upsets before.
Maybe then, I could get some sleep.