[USA-ENGLAND COUNTDOWN] The U.S. players have been pondering the idea of facing England in the World Cup for six months. In the final days leading up to the match, reality has set in. They will face a forward of electrifying pace, utter commitment and endless energy in Wayne Rooney. They must contain two gifted yet toughened midfielders in Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
They will attack a back line that includes a pair of defenders who’ve just added another Premier League title to their resumes in Ashley Cole and John Terry of Chelsea.
They will be up against one of the most respected and accomplished coached -- and a former Italian international who once scored a goal to beat England – in Fabio Capello.
They know that if they play a strong game, and get a few breaks, they can win. They also know that England, and Rooney in particular, can be ruthless about punishing mistakes, and given their back-line gaffes in competitions great and small, they are more than capable of betraying stretches of good play by horrendous errors.
Most important of all, they know this game, as important as it is, isn’t the only game they will play. A fervor whipped up by six months of reminding everyone what happened 60 years ago and steadily increasing promotional blasts by ESPN could produce healthy ratings on ABC, yet has certainly obscured what happens after referee Carlos Simon blows his whistle to end the match at approximately 4:30 p.m. Eastern time on Saturday.
“In the bigger picture, it’s just one of three games, and we understand that they’re all equally important in that way,” said Landon Donovan at a press conference Wednesday. “They really are. Aside from that, the other part of it is knowing what this game means back home. For the last six months all we’ve seen is U.S-England, so if you were a casual sports fan at home you might think this is the World Cup final, you wouldn’t know any different.”
Most of the U.S. regulars have played in England: goalie Tim Howard, defenders Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector; midfielders Stuart Holden, Clint Dempsey, and Donovan; and forward Jozy Altidore. That experience can help adjust to individual tendencies; the team itself is another matter.
England under Capello often looks different than past versions. Some of England’s success – it cruised through the qualifying phase with nine wins and just one loss – is credited to Capello’s influence in broadening England beyond its traditional strengths of hard running, aerial prowess, and determination. Still, having at least three potential game-breakers in Rooney, Gerrard, and Lampard is one of the best tactics of all.
“What you expect is that the team will be well-prepared, tactically they’ll be right, their mentality will be right,” says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. “He certainly sets a good tone with his team in terms of how they need to play, how they go about their business and I think that certainly, when you look at their qualifying, that has been positive.”
If 6-foot-7 Peter Crouch starts alongside Rooney, crosses and set plays will be that much more dangerous. Jermain Defoe brings blistering pace, Emile Heskey is a tank of a man who runs pretty well. Both teams have good attackers and potent midfields; England has the edge in defense, Howard is a much better keeper than any of the English choices, yet – like many of the Americans – he is playing in his first World Cup.
No matter who Capello deploys, the Americans will know what’s coming in what is being billed as -- but really isn’t -- the game of their lives. There are at least two more to go.
“Players have had different moments in their careers when they’ve been tested in those ways,” says Bradley. “Might have been a match already with the national team, might be experiences they’ve had with their club teams. I think the fact that we have players like Landon who have been in big games, have played in the World Cup and tasted success, that gives our team a level of experience that helps in big games.”