Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. In his second entry today, he looks at tomorrow's wildly anticipated match between England and the United States.
Sometime by mid-afternoon tomorrow, on a field at the bottom of the other hemisphere (where it's the dead of winter), the hopes of millions of hungry, hopeful, almost certainly delusional soccer fans will either be realized or dashed — even though the result of England versus the USA doesn't really matter to either team's chances in the World Cup.
In reality, whichever team loses need only beat the other two teams in the group, Slovenia and Algeria, to advance to the next round. Which doesn't make an opening loss any less deflating. I would know. I was there in Germany in 2006, drunk and ecstatic and dressed up like an Arizona rancher at a Tea Party rally, when the U.S. was trounced in its opener versus the Czech Republic. Sure, we still could have advanced, but it's hard to find many positives to build on after a 3–0 loss that could have been worse. A tie and a loss later, the U.S. players were on a plane home.
If you from England, tomorrow's game means everything, almost literally. A win affirms what all
British England fans hope — that their team is among the world's best, worthy of its No. 3 FIFA ranking — and a loss affirms what they all suspect: That their team is overrated and predestined to disappoint the nation, as it has every year since 1966, the one and only time the country that invented soccer won the World Cup.
Team USA also knows a little something about 40-year droughts. From 1950 to 1990, the U.S. qualified for the World Cup exactly zero times. So inglorious is our own Cup history that it features a total of six wins. (That shows you, by the way, how rare and important a single win can be.) One of those wins, of course, came in 1950, when a rag-tag bunch of dudes with day jobs beat England, a team of seasoned professionals, in a Miracle on Grass still considered by many to be the greatest upset in soccer history. The U.S. has qualified for every Cup since 1990 and our team improves (most) every time, so American fans remain optimistic; it wouldn't be very American of us to act otherwise.
On paper, in computer simulations, and in the mind of almost anyone out there who's objective, England should win. They are inarguably the deeper, more talented team, with players sitting the bench who have far more experience playing top-level soccer.
But can we win? Sure.
Critics will still point to the lack of American attacking options, and that is sort of fair, in that we don't have a world-class striker like Wayne Rooney, or four of them, like Argentina. But it's also somewhat of a vestigial tail of the long-standing and vanishing weak spot of the U.S. that has spanned the decades. For whatever reason, we've been chronically unable to produce players who score goals with any regularity. I can gladly report, however, that this should be our most dynamic offensive team of all time. Thanks to the 20-year-old Jozy Altidore, and the newly emergent risen-from-ashes-of-the-player pool, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez, Team USA can score from the front. What's more, in Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, our two best position players, we have stealth strikers who are doubly efficient because they play midfield and can actually create their own chances — something a traditional striker, alone on an island up front awaiting the ball in a bottle to wash ashore, cannot.
Of course, the fates give and they take. So while we've overcome our weakness up front, our traditional strength, in back, has weakened. During the recent warm-up "friendlies" against the Czechs and Turks, Team USA's defense was at times so porous that it appeared incapable of stopping a youth team's attack. It was particularly vulnerable on the left flank — where a lengthy cast of candidates has been auditioned over recent months — and, most disturbingly, in the middle on so-called "set pieces," such as corner kicks and free kicks. That's partly because our primary central defender, Oguchi Oneywu, an icebox of a man who looks like an NFL tight end, is recovering from a torn patellar tendon in his knee, and his cohort, Jay Demerit, has only recently recovered normal-ish vision after a freak eye infection necessitated a risky cornea transplant.
This year's team both scores goals and gives them up and will never really be comfortably ahead, nor behind. It's exciting on both ends and should make for entertaining, high-scoring games that might even satisfy the legions of soccer haters who grit their teeth and tune out of patriotic duty. As the British announcer Martin Tyler said of the U.S. during its last friendly versus Australia, last week: "With the ball, the U.S. have a lot to offer. Without the ball, it's not quite so good."
England has its problems at the back, too. The Manchester United star Rio Ferdinand is out with an injury suffered in training, and his partner in central defense, John Terry, torpedoed team morale by humping his teammate Wayne Bridge's baby mama. Bridge quit the team, and Terry was stripped of his captaincy. What's more, all-world left back Ashley Cole is only recently back from a broken foot suffered in a failed attempt at tackling none other than Landon Donovan in a league game.
Of course, the Three Lions also have two superstars in the midfield in Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, and they have Wayne Rooney, the prolific goal scorer, up front. Rooney, who in his early years was rumored to carry seven-figure gambling debts and a nasty hooker habit, is still a loose cannon prone to stupid fouls and inopportune cards, but he's far more mature than the petulant forward who was thrown out of the game during England's quarterfinal loss to Portugal in 2006. He's now probably the third best player in the world, and he absolutely shredded Premiership defenses this year, scoring 26 goals in 32 games.
It's unlikely there's ever been a United States opener this massive, but if there's a precedent for what's possible, it's not really England in 1950, but the game versus Portugal in 2002. The U.S. went up 3–0 and held on by a hair to win 3–2, an upset that sparked a run to the quarterfinals, in which we almost beat Germany, the eventual runner-up.
No matter how many replays you see in the previews on ESPN, there aren't a lot of parallels to the 1950 game versus England. These teams are far, far more closely matched, even if England remains a solid favorite. But there is one. The man who scored that epic goal to fell the Three Lions was Joe Gaejtens, a Haitian-American. Altidore, the best striker on the 2010 team, is also of Haitian descent. It's not much, but it's something.
My prediction: a 2–2 tie, which would be a huge victory for Team USA.