[USA-ENGLAND COUNTDOWN]One doesn’t need to read between the lines to get the mood of American players regarding their titanic struggle – see, even we're doing it – against England on Saturday in the opening game of Group C. They may be anxious, they may be nervous, they may be worried, but more than anything else, they just want to get on with it.
Reading too much into press-conference quotes is a hazard inherent to any big-time sport. If caution doesn’t prevail, banality often rules.
Yet there's nothing ambiguous about remarks in recent days from U.S. players about playing England. To use a modern – if martial – idiom, they are locked and loaded. They've tried to break up the drudgery of training sessions with some playful antics during jogs and shooting sessions, and so far, at least, haven't been so terribly bored as to start befriending the cows at a nearby diary.
All the questions about the historic 1950 upset, speculation about the fitness of Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu, whether Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley will start up top, and the rest of it, will be put aside. Finally.
"Our mentality is good," said goalkeeperTim Howard, who knows just about every member of the England team from seven seasons of Premier League play for Manchester United and Everton. "Anybody who's been in this situation knows what I’m talking about when I say we’re tired of kicking each other, we’re tired of training, we’re together forever."
The USA isn’t close to the time logged by many players of the Mexico team, who have been grouped since mid-April. To win the ’98 World Cup, France endured 66 days of togetherness at its Clairefontaine training site about 30 miles outside of Paris. Still, to the Americans, it’s about time the real stuff began.
“This is everything that we’ve dreamed of, and everything that everyone is talking about, and so we’re ready to just get it on and see what we’re made of,” says Howard. “All the talk is over, or soon will be over, and we’re excited for that. We are prepared, we know exactly what kind of game we’re going to be in, we’re under no illusions. I think it couldn’t be a better challenge to be the first game for us.”
The challenge may be tailor-made for Howard and the Americans to replicate their 2-0 upset of Spain a year ago at the Confederations Cup. Howard’s saves, some courageous blocks and timely tackles by numerous players, and two superb goals ended Spain’s 35-match unbeaten streak.
True, the Spaniards – even Fernando Torres – also shanked a few good opportunities. But England is not Spain and might not be nearly as composed when it takes the field against the USA. While expectations of advancement to the knockout stage will burden the Americans, there's far more pressure on the English, who are expected by most fans and pundits to waltz through this group. The times have changed, or have they?
“There was certainly a disdain for American players and the American game back in the days of the NASL, when so many British players came to take what was more or less a paid holiday at an old warriors playground,” says veteran English broadcaster Martin Tyler, who has been hired as the No. 1 play-by-play announcer for ABC and ESPN. “But it’s not that way anymore, not with the players and managers at least.
“Your goalkeepers have done very well for quite a while and more recently so have other players like Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan during his loan to Everton. English players play with and against Americans every week in the Premier League, so they know them and respect their abilities.”
Donovan is obviously the catalyst and the Americans will also hope to prevail on set plays, at which England can be formidable. Dempsey is the random element, not blessed with Donovan’s pace or workrate, but extremely shrewd at creating chances for himself and others, and by all accounts, the best finisher on the team.
“If you have that kind of quality in a midfield player, there’s always a chance of a goal going in, whether it’s him scoring it or somebody else getting the chance,” says Plymouth coach Paul Mariner, former assistant coach at New England during Dempsey's days in MLS. “That’s the key. That’s what we’ve always admired about Clint is his ability to get into those areas to score goals.”
Myriad scenarios could play out in this match, but it’s most likely England will press sooner rather than later to test the American backline and midfield, which could offer the U.S. opportunities to counterattack. However, breakdowns in the transition from attack to defense have plagued the U.S. repeatedly the past few years, and if players are caught out of position when England wins the ball, a pass or two will be enough to spring Wayne Rooney or someone else into the clear with only Howard in the way. The U.S. could play well yet still be down, 2-0, at halftime.
“I think it’s obviously helped us, we have a lot of key players like Clint, Landon and Timmy that have experience there,” says Altidore, who spent last season in the EPL with Hull City, of the mutual familiarity. “It helps everybody else because you have those guys able to give advice to other players about how a certain player might play, so that’s always a plus.”