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. Today, a special Sunday post, about the draw between the United States and England yesterday.
I wonder what they're talking about in England today? The precarious state of the European economy? The surprising resurgence of the Jude Law–Sienna Miller romance? David Cameron's first month in office? Oh, wait — I know! I bet it's Robert Green. Oh, Robert Green, you poor, tousled-haired goof. If only you could have clamped your wooden mitts around that slippery little Jabulani, England would have a victory and sit atop Group C, and a nation would be temporarily sated in its eternal hunger for fútbol glory. But, alas, you did not. And now you can probably never return home again. You are destined to while away your days in a dingy walk-up in Malta, enjoying sunlight only on the occasional weekend in Ibiza, where your oversize sunglasses and teddy-bear backpack disguise won't look out of place.
Okay, the dude screwed up. It was a boner for the ages. But get this England: You can't pin this tie — which is as good as a loss as far as the lager-sodden hooligans back home are concerned — on the goalkeeper. For the twenty minutes before Clint Dempsey struck the ball that led to the goal, the U.S. was dominating play. After committing a boner of their own — Ricardo Clark took a cat nap and left Steven Gerrard open inside the U.S. box before anyone at home had time to finish a pint (note to Coach Bradley: Can we PLEASE see Jose Torres instead of Clark?!) — the men of the U.S. regained composure, seized the game, and had a handful of dangerous attempts on goal, nearly all of them created by Dempsey or Landon Donovan.
Those two didn't play their greatest games, but they did give the U.S. the better pair of star midfielders, as England's Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard again looked uncomfortable splitting the role of most important central midfielder. For my money, it was the coach's kid, Michael Bradley, who shone most brightly in the middle, harassing attackers, breaking up English passes, and tackling every bloke who dared cross his path. His play isn't pretty, but it's critical.
But we were talking about Green. Honestly, the guy wasn't that bad, and he did almost redeem himself by saving a sure goal off the foot of Jozy Altidore late in the game, after America's young striker left England's right back Jamie Carragher holding his jock strap. (He wasn't the only Englishman to be shamed by a U.S. player: English coach Fabio Capello had to remove James Milner from the game after right back Steve Cherundolo — who had a helluva game, by the way — embarrassed him so badly that he took up American football tactics and drew a yellow card.)
Of course, Green looks worse because the goalie on the other side was the best player on the field. What can I say about Tim Howard? The guy was outstanding, even after he took a set of spikes to his ribs. The surprise was how good his defense looked. Recent warm-up matches had revealed the U.S. defense to be as porous as moon rock. But Oguchi Oneywu stood tall in the middle for a full 90-minutes, and along with Jay Demerit, basically forced the English attack out wide. For all the talk about Wayne Rooney, the guy was a non-factor, vanishing for such long stretches that he could well have squeezed in a visit or two to a local brothel.
This is the point at which English readers begin choking on their vegemite sandwiches. "We were the better team!" you're yelling, and I hear you. For most of the second half, England controlled the ball, pressured the U.S. defense and ... didn't manage to do much of anything with it.
Were we Americans lucky to escape with a point? A little, yes. But I don't feel guilty at all celebrating that tie. The U.S. looked like a team that belongs on the field with the world's top teams, and it didn't even play its best. If Donovan and Dempsey can keep creating, and we get a little better play up front from whoever will spell Findley in the next game, and if Tim Howard's ribs hold up, well... the U.S. is in good position to keep playing past the first round. Which is really all we can ask of these guys. And at that point, anything's possible.
Of course, we could still fall apart. But I feel confident enough to predict this: Both the U.S. and England will win their next two matches, but Team USA will win the group on goal differential. USA!