[USA-ENGLAND] The Game of Green’s Godawful Goal might not have been nearly so memorable had the Americans crumbled after falling behind shortly after kickoff, just as they did in the opening minutes of the 2006 World Cup. Instead, they battled back for a 1-1 tie that gave both teams a valuable point in the Group C opener Saturday in Rustenburg.
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Against England, there wasn’t enough possession and poise in midfield, and the forward play needs to be more incisive more often. Yet to shake out the nerves of a World Cup opener against the group heavyweight and a few truly outstanding players while still getting a point is a good start.
Rather than meekly succumbing as it did four years ago to a 3-0 whipping by Czech Republic following Jan Koller’s powerful header in the fifth minute, the U.S. dug itself out of a hole to secure a 1-1 draw.
True, the hands of English keeper Robert Green did much of the shoveling by steering Clint Dempsey’s 25-yard bouncer over the goal line to cancel out a fourth-minute finishing gem by Steven Gerrard, and had Wayne Rooney been anything close to his marauding, predatory self, England could have matched that Czech Republic margin.
Why England failed to seize control is more than the sum of Tim Howard’s saves, Steve Cherundolo’s savvy and Jozy Altidore’s heft. If the Americans were lucky, it’s the same kind of luck that propelled them past Egypt and then Spain a year ago at the Confederations Cup, a luck borne of grit and spirit.
The central defensive pairing of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu, a highlight of last summer’s runner-up finish in the Confederations Cup, is still being rebuilt. Twice Onyewu stepped up without cover, and both times England pounced. His physical recovery from a torn patellar tendon in mid-October seems nearly complete; his anticipation and decision-making need sharpening. Yet his strong tackles and aerial challenges were instrumental in breaking up English attacks aside from those gaffes.
HOLES IN THE BACK. On the first occasion, Gerrard zoomed inside Ricardo Clark to take a diagonal ball from Emile Heskey, being marked by DeMerit, and blow through the hole left by Onyewu – who had pushed up the challenge Rooney well outside the penalty area -- to smack a sweet shot low with the outside of his right foot just inside the post. Less than four minutes into the match, the Americans were down, 1-0.
Clark, whose desperate lunge to block the shot fell short, waved his arms in disbelief as he sat on the ground, as if to ask, ‘Uh, isn’t somebody supposed to be there?’ Staying goalside on Gerrard is always a good idea, too.
In the second half, Heskey tore into space vacated by Onyewu to face Howard, who stood his ground and easily handled Heskey’s shot straight at him. The miscommunication was most evident, however, late in the first half when the two central defenders, so close together they could have bumped shoulders, escorted a through ball with neither deciding what to do with it.
Not surprisingly, Howard tore into his team a few times, calling for tighter marking and better defensive shape. Left back Carlos Bocanegra got skinned by the quick and canny force that is right mid Aaron Lennon, and that can happen to anybody, but on other occasions he simply drifted too far inside, or bit on a move that left either Lennon or right back Glen Johnson free down the flank.
Wide mids Landon Donovan and Dempsey switched sides during the match, and both came deep to put in some good, and necessary, defensive work. Dempsey also floated inside with the U.S. in possession, but too often nobody drifted wide to cover that flank, even in transition. Yet it was from a central spot that Dempsey, who’d been knocked an awkward but ultimately vital early ball by Michael Bradley, twisted into space and hit the skipping 25-yard shot that will forever haunt Green, England fans and their coach, who chose him over Joe Hart and David James.
AGITATED CAPELLO. That’s you, Fabio Capello, who while coaching his first World Cup match looked far more agitated and upset than he usually did in the middle of Italy’s back line or on the sidelines with Real Madrid, Juventus, or AC Milan.
Seldom did right back Cherundolo need help or get caught out of position. He tormented James Milner, who had been battling stomach problems in the lead-up to the match, so severely Capello replaced Milner after 30 minutes. Capello also yanked center back Ledley King at halftime; presumably because his tender knees were flaring up. (King has already been ruled out of England's next game against Algeria.) Cherundolo’s tough tackles, confident touches, and intelligent movement grounded the Americans on numerous occasions, something many of his teammates were unable to do.
A disjointed, patchwork feel marred much of England’s play, though Lennon slotted a few balls into the goalmouth that Rooney and Heskey failed to put away. In the second half, he scorched Bocanegra and from the goal line pulled back a diagonal ball that rolled about a yard behind first Rooney, at the near post, and then Heskey. So close, and a clear warning to the Americans that their defending needs upgrading.
Another critical pairing, that of Altidore and Robbie Findley, may not be renewed, but they didn’t get a lot of offensive support from Bradley and Clark for much of the match. Donovan and Dempsey were active and energetic, and maybe Dempsey’s moves into the middle were supposed to form links to the forwards. The Bradley-Clark duo didn’t do much offensively but blotted out Frank Lampard for most of the game and picked up the slack when Rooney dropped into midfield. Gerrard got the goal and threatened a few other times, and also took a caution when he hacked Dempsey on the knee.
Findley did a lot of checking back and drifting wide to find the ball, but seldom did he get a real chance to run at a ball behind the back line that he had a chance of catching up to. When he broke up the left flank with 10 minutes left in the first half, he looked inside to see Altidore surrounded by five or six opponents and no teammate within 25 yards. It was a glaring example of wide gaps that sometimes separated the forwards and center mids.
Altidore, perhaps a bit rusty after missing some time with an ankle sprain, started somewhat uncertain of himself but gained in confidence and decisiveness as the match unfolded. There didn’t seem to be any danger when he took a short ball near the left sideline more than 40 yards from goal, but he turned upfield to power his way past Jamie Carragher and banged a shot Green deflected onto the post.
HEROIC HOWARD. Howard stoned the English several times with critical saves, but only Johnson’s shot tested him to any extent. His toughness and courage carried him through the match after a lunge from Heskey caught him on the wrist and in the ribs. He took a shot of cortisone at halftime to relieve the pain of bruised ribs, and by gutting it out to the final whistle exemplified a team spirit that must be a constant at this World Cup.
(Soccer America readers: What do think of the U.S. performance? What changes should be made for the second game?)