Wednesday, June 16, 2010

US v England!

I had to find the time to re-watch our match vs England before forming a final opinion since the first viewing was really all about the party.  A friend of mine threw a birthday/gameday bash and packed in 30 plus fans into his (sizable) living room.  Most in attendance could be classified somewhere in the range from casual fans to interested spectators in this whole "soccerball world series", as the Sun so eloquently put it.

There is of course always the one guy, whom US fans would call a eurosnob, who randomly follows an EPL team, though he's never seen them in person, learns all their songs, and refuses to support the US (or MLS), labeling it as inferior.  Now, I don't have a lot of love for the MLS either, but I can't discount the impact its had on the progression of our national side.  Though only 4 members of our WC squad are currently in the MLS, the majority spent formative years of their careers there.  But to support France or England over the US?!?!  That's freakin ridiculous.  I can't stand those who think of the US team like its some kind of club team.  No, they represent you whether you like it or not.  France doesn't claim you.  They don't represent you.  They don't want you.  I don't understand why eurosnobs don't get that.

Its also not about the quality of soccer.  Anyway, we're really only 20 years young as a soccer nation since we were essentially dead from 1950 - 1990.  To have achieved what we've achieved already is phenomenal.  And we're only getting better.  I love US Soccer because we're still underdogs.  But we work hard and we play as a team.  And there are no egos bigger than the team.  We might be short (quickly developing) on technical skill but we're long on heart.  That's as simply as I can put it.  Back to the game.  Fortunately, my eurosnob friend came not wanting to be the pooper, and credit to him, wanted to see us win.  He couldn't keep from disparaging our players periodically, but hey, baby steps.

As much as ESPN was hyping this matchup, a true fan knew the matches vs Slovenia and Algeria were actually more important in terms of advancing.  England was likely to go through so we're actually battling the other two for the one spot left.  I also thought that we'd have a hard time getting points off England anyway because I felt we were similar stylistically while they were superior individually.  Obviously only Howard could be in England's starting 11 (as could Hahnemann, Guzan and Friedel) and perhaps only Donovan and Dempsey would have a shot at the 23 man squad.

But for the visibility of the game in the US, this match was the biggie.  ESPN knew it and pushed it unrelentlessly for 6 months.  I think the fact that they put their considerable weight behind it does more for the growth of the game in the US as any one match can do.  Losing on Saturday would have definitely been a step back, but the hype leading up to it was beneficial longterm anyway.  Surprisingly, our game was the 5th most viewed WC game IN HISTORY. It was definitely the highest rated group game of all time.  And I don't think the numbers adequately reflect the fact that most fans, like us, watched in large groups settings, some even gathering by the hundreds or thousands across the country.

Before the match, it was a little awkward watching the two teams in the tunnel.  Besides Tim Howard briefly greeting Robert Green, interesting in itself - as if it say "I'm the only one good enough to belong" and "I'm about to show you the American art of goalkeeping" - I didn't observe any US player even looking over at the English side, including captain Bocanegra who even turned his back on Gerrard to keep from having to acknowledge him.  I wish we wore our blue track jackets since England opted for no jackets.  It was too much white.  I also thought of the fact that last time we played England at Wembley in a friendly, English players noticed that some of on our squad were visibly shaking from nervousness.  I didn't see that this time.  Another plus for Bob's scheduling of difficult friendlies.

The English sing "My country tis of Thee" all jacked up.  What?  "save the Queen"?  seriously?  Its 2010!  We have a black president and you're still summoning up imagery about knights saving the queen.  just sayin.  But I think there is no better national anthem than ours.  Especially when it starts with the roll of the snare.  Then "flag was still there" & "land of the free and the home of the brave".  sniff.  perfect.  Most countries' players pose and look poignant when the camera is on them.  I think our players, with hands over hearts, actually know that they represent the greatest country in the world.

As for the starting lineup, I would have preferred Edu over Clark.  To me, Clark is a red card waiting to happen and he lacks the ability to contribute to the offense.  His passing is almost always backwards or sideways.  Edu is a better 2 way player.  Unlike many though, I didn't want to see Torres or Feilhaber vs England simply because I knew this was going to have to be a defensive game, especially with Lampard and Gerrard in the center.  Findley was a mild surprise, but the strategy is clearly to use speed to threaten Terry and King, who lack Rio's presence.

For the 3 Lions, I can't believe someone like Joe Cole doesn't start.  Especially over Milner.  Also, I don't mind Heskey as long as Gerrard and Lamps are free to go forward at anytime.  But with the duo forced to alternately stay back in place of Barry, I would've rather started a more potent offensive option alongside Rooney instead of Heskey.

I liked the prolonged pregame huddle.  (Who spoke?  Boca?)  I didn't like that England scored in the 4th minute.  It was just .... deflating.  We waited 4 long years for this game, unable to forget how dejected we were after getting robbed (crap pk call vs Gooch) vs Ghana in 2006.  In the waning moments of that game, Landon had the ball right outside the penalty box and instead of shooting, he laid it off to BEN OLSEN, possibly the least threatening player in US WC history.

The 2nd worst feeling from that Cup was the goal in the 3rd minute by Jan Koller in the first group game vs Czech Rep.  After we traveled all the way to Germany, couldn't they wait a half or two before raining on our parade?  Now, 4 long years later, we were again in the hole 4 minutes into the first game.  Unbelievable.

The difference from the Czech Rep game when LB Eddie Lewis was badly caught out of position and this time, is that this was sort of a fluke.  A pass meant for Rooney scooted instead to Heskey.  Gooch ran to pressure Rooney and was caught too far out.  Meanwhile Gerrard lost Clark on a diagonal run and Heskey made a Brian Ching-like pass which Gerrard easily scored on.  Clark was at fault.  Gooch was caught in no man's land.  DeMerit and Boca could've both reacted better.  So basically, it wasn't Cherundolo's fault.

The 2nd viewing, I watched carefully to see how we would react to a potentially devastating moment.  On Saturday, I thought it took about 10 minutes to mentally recover.  2nd time, I actually thought we didn't break in form at all.  It shows strength in our resolve.  Or perhaps it was overwhelming belief in Bradley's game plan.  Or something else lofty-sounding like that.

Jozy had the best US chance in the box in the 1st half from a great Donovan pass which just glanced off his head.  Dolo also seemed ultra active and forced Capello to make a tactical change 30 minutes into the game.  It was surprising to say the least.  When's the last time a manager made a non-injury sub while they're winning 1-0 before the half?  Great teams impose their will, not adjust personnel to match upstarts.

Tim Howard's injury looks to me to be broken ribs.  They haven't done scans yet since there isn't much they can do about it anyway.  Hopefully a shot of painkiller and natural adrenalin will do the trick on Friday.

I'm not sure anything can cure what will now plague Robert Green for the rest of his life.  Perhaps he can finally move on if he ever decides to live in the US.  Then again, record numbers here did see his gaffe.  Dempsey will forever be credited for the goal but most in England probably think it was an own goal.  I liked how Dempsey turned Gerrard twice on the same play and decided to give it a go.  However, while most think the shot was extremely manageable, I thought it deserved much more caution than Green gave it.

Howard would have had his hands and body behind that ball and cradled around it on the ground after.  Green almost looked like he was trying to pick it up.  That sort of error in technique is just shocking at this level and it is beyond me how Capello would allow a keeper with the sort of errors that Green has had this past year on the field.  Then again, clearly Capello is limited in his choices.  I hope Green gets another start and proves himself the next 2 games.  At least his mistake, unlike Beckham's in 98, or Seaman's in 02 or Rooney's in 06 didn't come in a game that they lost (or a knockout game).

The living room erupted when the ball trickled over the line.  I can't remember the last time we were on the fortunate side of such a play.  As the underdog who looks to play fair, we seem to always be on the wrong side of unexpected moments like that.  But for once, it happened for us on the biggest stage.

Jozy's sprint around Carragher was a glimpse of our future, even though it was the slow-footed Carragher, and had the ball hit the post a few inches to the right, it would have bounded into the goal instead of across the face of it.  That was the best scoring chance of the game, in my opinion.  One who didn't have good chances was Rooney.  After watching both times, I realized that he was pretty much taken out of the game by Gooch and DeMerit.  In fact, I can remember 2 times that he actually worried Howard - the first was a free header that Lampard placed half a foot above Rooney's reach and the second was a searing shot from distance which thankfully drifted right of goal.

With the CBs attention on Rooney, Dolo and Boca were left manning the wings and the speed of SWP and Lennon pretty much by themselves.  My biggest concern besides Rooney before this game was the speed of Lennon on the right vs Bocanegra.  While Lennon did threaten a few times from the wing, it never became the tactical story of the game that I thought it could be.

Some of those in attendance at the bash were let down or frustrated that we didn't press hard enough or possess the ball enough in the last 15 minutes of the game to try and win it.  Yes, I was hoping we could muster enough energy down the stretch for another fastbreak.  And yes, I would have preferred to pass the ball around a little instead of hoofing it downfield whenever we won possession.  Obviously winning would have been incredible.  But, to draw vs England on the biggest stage?  Coming back after a 4th minute deficit?  That is a great result.  It most likely means that we have a one point advantage over our opponents to start with, especially with Gareth Barry coming back to the English side.  We've also got to remember that in England, everyone is treating this as a loss.  So we have to see it as a win.

As for our players, I first thought that Clark and Findley both particularly had bad nights.  I thought our entire defense minus Dolo were also mediocre.  But on the 2nd viewing, I realized that no one played that poorly.  Everyone was pressuring the ball and doing their part to keep England from scoring again.  The very fact that Rooney, Gerrard and Lampard were very quiet this game after the 4th minute is a testament to a solid team effort.

1-10 Player Ratings

8.5 Howard: Man of the Match.  Cements his legacy in the tradition of great US keepers.

8.5 Cherundolo: best US defender on the night.  forced Milner off the field in just 30 min.

8 Bradley: tirelessly worked to minimize the effect Lampard and Gerrard had on the game.

7.5 Dempsey: likes to try .... stuff.  goal.

7 Donovan: I didn't notice Cole the whole game.  liked that he also took a couple long shots but I want to see more influence in the attack.

7 DeMerit: his resolve won over his lack of talent.  Marked Rooney ruthlessly out of the game.

6.5 Altidore: a few threatening chances.  Has to finish one.

6 Onyewu: not bad for his first full 90 since October.  Got caught jogging a few times.

6 Findley: Played hard.  Got fouled (uncalled) on dangerous breakaway.

6 Bocanegra: best LB option so I can't complain since Lennon didn't influence the game.

5.5 Clark: reacted too slow to Gerrard's run/goal.  But fiercely defended without fouling for most of the game.

NA Buddle / Holden: interesting that Buddle was brought in for Findley instead of Gomez.  Also interesting that Holden came in before Beasley.

Oh, and Gomez got screwed out of a 10 second cap by the ref.


Next up, Slovenia.  Since they won vs Algeria, (on an absolutely putrid keeper error), a win over the US would seal their spot in the next round, and essentially end our dreams to advance.  They would have 6 points after 2 games, while the best we could do is finish with 4 after all 3 games.  I think England, at worst, will win and draw in the next 2 games, which gives them 5 points.  So, this game is a must win.

I can't believe that their midfielder, Komac, is guaranteeing victory.  Gooch said it best when he said that no American would ever say anything like that.  Howard added that talk is cheap.  we'll see.

Slovenia is a defense and counter team so its time to bring in Torres or Feilhaber to possess the ball and unlock this defense.  I expect Donovan to have a huge game.  Can't wait.

I remember a buzz, a nonstop surge of excitement after the 1-1 draw vs Italy in 2006 ("9 men, we only had 9 men.  But we still forced a draw with the Ita-lians").  It was a feeling of great hope knowing that we only needed a win vs Ghana to advance.  Obviously staying home this time dampens the euphoria a bit.  But honestly, I feel the same investment this time.  We're in the same position now, only needing a win over a supposedly inferior opponent.  The main thing is to score first this time.

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