[USA] Credit to the USA, or at least to English keeper Robert Green, for getting a point after falling behind in the fourth minute, but conceding early goals is a habit the Americans are finding hard to break.
In their postgame comments, the relieved Americans admitted as such without pointing fingers of blame at the huge space that opened up for Steven Gerrard to dart through and score, or the free runs down the flank afforded Aaron Lennon and Glen Johnson throughout the match.
“I was pretty annoyed because the marking was a little too lax, particularly for the beginning of a game when you’re supposed to be really up for it,” said keeper Tim Howard. “But at that point you can’t really dwell on it because you still have 90 some minutes to play. So, it deflated us a little bit but we quickly responded.
“We weren’t particularly sharp early on, as you saw. We weren’t tight, especially on the goal. I don’t know at the start if it was nerves or what have you, but we responded.”
From the first minute, right back Steve Cherundolo and defender Jay DeMerit and a few other players were up to speed. Some of their teammates weren’t, and didn’t respond when Emile Heskey touched a ball into the space vacated by Oguchi Onyewu for Gerrard to collect and stab a shot past Howard.
Falling behind so early forced the Americans into taking more of the attacking initiative, which they will likely need to do in their second game against Slovenia, which downed Algeria, 1-0, to take over first place in Group C. If anything, Slovenia is even tougher defensively than England, which had to replace Rio Ferdinand with Ledley King for the World Cup, and then had to replace King at halftime.
What the U.S. did well against England, tracking and containing Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard, and harassing James Milner out of the game in the 30th minute, is a function of intensity and focus, and not so much about tactics and role assignments.
Though both played well overall, central defensive partners DeMerit and Onyewu were occasionally out of sync. DeMerit chose his moments to step into midfield shrewdly, making sure there was cover, either from Onyewu or another teammate. There were also breakdowns on Carlos Bocanegra’s side, where he needed help to contain two or more opponents, and didn’t always get it.
First-game jitters can be blamed for some of the poor play, and a change or two in personnel will likely be implemented to face Slovenia, which as the pivotal second match has always been the one most likely to determine the U.S. fate. With three points in hand, Slovenia could set out to get at least a point and throw up barriers to shut down the U.S. attack.
Yet if it beats the USA, Slovenia advances, period, full stop, regardless of what happens later in the day when England plays Algeria. The Slovenians will surely have noted the U.S. tendency to start slow and fall behind, so the early minutes Friday might be just as crucial, and potentially damaging, as those during which England scored.
Slovenia could come out strong to get a quick goal, or stalk the Americans before ratcheting up the pressure in a game where one goal might be enough to win. In any case, the match will be a tense, nerve-wracking 90 minutes that not all of the American players seem prepared to handle. Even while battling back to tie England, the U.S. needed seven saves from Howard and a few other key plays to prevent a second goal.
No matter who Bob Bradley selects and where they play, the Americans can’t be distracted. The buildup and hype leading up to the England match roiled around history and cultures and 1950 and Joe Gaetjens and the Premier League; this week is just about one game and the points, and pride, at stake.