Wednesday, 9 June 2010
USA Have Weapons For Strong World Soccerball Series Campaign
If the ‘special relationship’ appears frosty now, just wait until June 12th. The opening game of the World Cup’s group C is already eagerly anticipated. Its contestants, England and the USA, are both expected to qualify from the group, occupied as it is by relative international minnows. From this opening fixture, the victor can expect safe passage to the knockout stages. For the loser, the margins will become tighter and the bums squeakier. And, in case anyone was wondering, there should be no doubts the USA have designs on top spot in the group.
It has been a while since the two countries have met on what appears quite a level playing field. Low expectations continue to surround England despite FIFA’s world rankings, for what they’re worth, placing them eighth and the USA 14th. Previous meetings, one famous 1-0 defeat in 1950 aside, have also tended to favour the English. Previous tournament form, though, gives one cause for thought.
The USA’s pedigree is frequently measured by last summer’s vuvuzela-introducing, curtain-raising Confederations Cup exploits – the last time they faced any side with real international clout. As most are fairly aware, they became the first team to inflict defeat on Vincent del Bosque’s Spain in 35 matches, ending their run of 15 straight victories. They ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of famous victory – a 3-2 loss after being 2-0 up inside 27 minutes – against Brazil in the tournament’s final.
Their group stage campaign in the tournament could have secured them quite a different reputation. They were humbled 3-1 by Italy and then 3-0 by Brazil, before sneaking through with a 3-0 victory over Egypt, having scored one goal more than the imploding Italians. The power and mobility displayed against Spain and Brazil took a while to come to fore and England will hope to catch the American side – and their defence in particular – similarly cold. Strong starts, though, are certainly not England’s strong suit.
Inconsistent though they can be, the USA do have the weapons to be incisive from the outset. England will be emboldened by a defence flakier than a crushed Cadbury’s Flake (and just as hard to get off your shirt), but concerned by attacks that, when they get it right, have the potential to cut through defences at speed. Landon Donovan’s excellent loan spell at Goodison Park and the performances of Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley (with only nine caps between them) and the tireless Clint Dempsey up front in the build-up to the finals offer the USA plenty of confidence, as well as hinting that their traditional lack of flair and goals may not be as evident this time. Jozy Altidore, maligned at Hull, has scored nine international goals in 25 caps – of which Donovan has assisted five. It could be a formidable front line. Rangers’ DaMarcus Beasley, should he feature, is certainly no slouch, despite carrying the significant weight of the world’s most unnecessary prefix.
At the back, the USA are not quite as blessed. While all three goalkeepers in the squad ply their trade in the Premier League – some more frequently than others – the defence could be a conspicuous weak spot. Star centre back and the country’s tallest-ever outfield player, Oguchi Onyewu, currently in the employ of AC Milan, has appeared only twice for the Rossoneri this season having torn the patellar tendon in his knee while on international duty in October last year. Carlos Bocanegra isn’t getting any younger and Jon Spector shares a ‘reason to be critiqued’ with Matthew Upson, namely that he has spent a season (albeit successfully) battling relegation with West Ham. Another British-based player, Watford’s Jay DeMerit, is also no stranger to the bottom of the Premier League, weighted down as he presumably is by the world’s second most unnecessary prefix.
In conclusion then, the side are a bit like a Midwest mullet – short and sharp up front, straggly and all over the place at the back. In their pre-tournament friendlies, a 3-1 victory over Australia followed a 2-1 victory over Turkey and not only gave weight to this argument, but also inspired confidence in the ranks. A 2-1 defeat away in the Netherlands and a worrying 4-2 reality Czech at the hands of the fading Republic on home soil are rapidly being forgotten about, as is another friendly defeat in Honduras, and Bob Bradley – a coach with a reputation for competence rather than ingenuity, but nevertheless a man who knows his apples from his onions – has built a physical, competitive and imposing team.
Naturally, there is a chance that the game with England will all kick off. By virtue of being a country on the planet that isn’t England, the Americans feel an element of needle with their first opponents. There is unease in both directions, whether it be over chronic bastardisation of an entire language or appalling dental hygiene. The USA won’t be afraid to get stuck into England. It might even suit them. In fact, this could be a fairly ugly game in what might turn out to be a fairly ugly group.
There are, of course, games beyond this opening fixture, though it will still rank as an upset if the USA win. Qualification through the group stages should, however, be reasonably serene for the Americans, though much depends on the obduracy of the Slovenians, who could make the final group game, if the USA need to win it, quite uncomfortable. Should similar momentum to their Confederations Cup campaign build up, it could easily take the USA as far as the quarter finals. Bradley and his players appear confident, accomplished and desperate to avoid a repeat of 2006 when they crashed out in the group stages with barely a whimper. Last summer’s experience of the Highveld and proper tournament football, however, should mean they know exactly what to expect this time round. Rob MacDonald