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Review of England’s opponents – USA


By Thom Watt.

When the 2010 World Cup groups were drawn, England fans could be forgiven for affording themselves a wry smile. Fears of a potential “Group of Death” quickly abated, as the Three Lions were placed in what seemed like one of the more favourable draws possible. Now, with the tournament less than a week away, the prospect of USA, Slovenia and Algeria seem less welcoming, as the focus shifts from the Big Prize to the immediate job in hand. If past tournaments have taught us anything, it is that – to paraphrase the football poet Eduardo Galeano – sometimes the little fish eat the big ones, bones and all. So, just what can Capello expect from his Group C opponents?

The USA will provide England’s first, and arguably greatest, test in their opening three fixtures. The stars and stripes have few genuinely World Class talents, but can call upon an unmatched unity and organisation in their squad. Very few national sides respond as well to being written off as the USA, which is why they may be such taxing early opponents for England. With a talented and reliable goalkeeper in Tim Howard, and a solid defence (a staple of coach Bob Bradley’s tenure), Team USA will be hoping to match their achievements of 2002, when they were eventually defeated in the Quarter Finals by Germany. They may lack the flair to be able to break down the more stoic sides, but if success is measured by work rate and tenacity, the Americans should reach at least the second round.

Certainly, the 23 players selected by Bradley will have no shortage of experience of their opponent’s game; seven of the current squad ply their trade in England, with a further six having had experience of English club football. With the majority of the team now playing in Europe’s top leagues (seven in England, three in Germany, one each in Italy, Spain and France) there is a growing belief that the USA have a crop of players capable of making an impression in South Africa. If further proof were needed, last year’s Confederations Cup showed just how capable the American team can be on their day, ending Spain’s 35 match unbeaten run in the semi-finals and leading Brazil 2-0 in the final before surrendering in the second half. Bob Bradley’s tactical pragmatism may not win over many fans, but it has proved an effective dampener against more illustrious or high profile opponents, and allows the team to play to their strengths.

Since taking over from mentor, Bruce Arenas, Bob Bradley has adopted a cautious 4-4-2/4-5-1 formation, with Clint Dempsey operating as a floating second striker or advanced midfielder, depending on the opponents. The Fulham man has been a revelation in recent seasons, weighing in with 7 league goals in each of his last two campaigns, and turning in eye catching performances – none more so than against Juventus at Craven Cottage – as Fulham progressed to the UEFA Cup final. With Dempsey sitting behind either Jozy Altidore or Edson Buddle, England will most likely face two holding midfielders, in Rangers’ Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley, son of coach Bob. Edu’s willingness to protect the defence and keep possession usually frees Bradley to get forward when the team is on the attack. Indeed, Bradley – a somewhat temperamental link up player, who has become the mainstay of the Borussia Monchengladbach midfield – managed five goals in qualifying for the World Cup, and could be a candidate for any set pieces in attacking regions.

Should Bradley Snr field a more attacking side, he may opt for Aberdeen-born Stuart Holden. Holden is on the books at Bolton Wanderers and carries a real threat with his delivery from free kicks and corners, as well as a good eye for goals from distance. With a packed central midfield, the USA’s best chances are often created from wide areas where they have pace and power in abundance. DaMarcus Beasley, the former Rangers, PSV and Manchester City winger, is likely to occupy the right side of midfield, while Landon Donovan will provide support for the forward line from the left.

Donovan is something of an enigma, but could yet prove to be one of the stars of the World Cup. After years of underachieving outside of his homeland, his loan move to Everton was a modest success, and his abilities do appear to be catching up with his reputation. One final shot at the Big Time in Europe could be motivation enough for him to turn on the style in South Africa. Despite being the poster boy of US Soccer (and having his nose put severely out of joint by the arrival of David Beckham at LA Galaxy), Donovan failed to make any impact at either Bayer Leverkusen or Bayern Munich. A cameo loan spell at Goodison this season showed glimpses of what he is capable of, and an impressive strike rate of 42 goals in 123 appearances for his country hints at bigger and better things.

However, the MLS value the player at around £8m-10m, and it would take a convincing display at the World Cup to persuade any suitors to part with that sort of cash. Where better to do so than against England? With Glen Johnson likely to be paired with a more attacking midfielder (Lennon or Milner?) on the right side of the pitch, there may be space on the left wing for the US to exploit on the counter attack. Low balls across the box have been especially effective for the US side under Bob Bradley, and so England’s full backs will need to be wary of indulging their attacking instincts too often.

Of the defenders likely to start against the English, two will be more than familiar names to any fans of the Premiership. Carlos Bocanegra is the captain of the US team, and will be remembered from his days at Fulham, which veered from tenacious to ill disciplined. Now at Rennes, Bocanegra will likely line up with Jonathan Spector of West Ham, veteran of 2002 and 2006 Steve Cherundolo, and Oguchi Onyewu, the one time Newcastle loanee, now with AC Milan. Onyewu’s story is quite remarkable, as he was injured shortly after his move from Standard Liege to the San Siro, allowing him only two appearances for the Rossoneri. By way of repaying the Milanese faith, Onyewu has agreed to a one year extension of his contract in Italy without salary. The defence will be marshalled by another familiar face in Tim Howard, the Everton shot stopper. Howard is as capable as any ‘keeper in the Premiership and will provide a significant barrier to negotiate.

It is always dangerous to read too much into warm up matches, but the US certainly look to be reaching their peak as the tournament approaches. An embarassing 3-0 humiliation at home to Honduras was followed with an unconvincing 2-1 win over El Salvador, and a very credible 2-1 defeat against The Netherlands. A 4-2 home defeat by the Czech Republic did little to encourage faith in Team USA, but encouraging wins over Turkey and Australia suggest that they are moving in the right direction. The match against England will not determine whether they can progress beyond the group – even if the USA get a positive result, lower ranked sides have been their undoing in recent years – but it will certainly be the match that the squad are most looking forward to.

Tenacity in the face of adversity, or as football pundits would prefer to call it “being written off”, is the single greatest weapon available to Team USA. If England play to the best of their abilities, they should run out comfortable winners. If they don’t play to their potential, the US will cause Gerrard and Co. no end of problems with their fitness, tireless running and willingness to starve opponents of possession.

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