Dispatched From South Africa: Final Thoughts On United States Vs. England

Five final thoughts on today’s epic United States-England clash:

1. I keep hearing over here about Wayne Rooney’s potty mouth and how he or someone else in a Three Lions kit could pick up silly cautions that may impact the result. True dat. But I’m thinking about the United States’ propensity to pick up damaging cards in World Cups, too. So U.S. manager Bob Bradley, a detail guy if there ever was one, is making players aware generally of the value of prudence. Specifically, he’s making sure everyone knows that Brazilian referee Carlos Simon is hardly shy about reaching into the pocket.

"It’s important that there’s discipline," Bradley said Wednesday. "I think we’ve seen in a number of World Cups, especially in the first round, the fact that players must respect the game, must respect their opponents. Otherwise, there will be cards given."

If I got to pick first in the pool, I’d choose Michael Bradley as most likely to get the first U.S. card.

2. The Mexican team was so successful two weeks back against England at Wembley because they press and possess the ball so well. With sharp passing they limited England’s chances to find Wayne Rooney or to create set piece chances. (Mexico lost, but looked like the better side, especially considering they were playing in London.) In a sense, that enhanced hope that the Yanks could summon the upset. On the other hand, the United States doesn’t play as Mexico does. They want to get the ball forward quickly. Not necessarily old-England style through long balls, but the pace in which they want to move the ball is quick. There’s no dilly-dallying around with a slow-build approach. (Which, by the way, is why Jose Torres finds playing time so sparse; he doesn’t really fit into the way Bradley wants to play.) Nor does the United States press up high the way Mexico does. They’ll sit deep, looking to counter. That will give England’s midfield time to pick out Peter Crouch’s head or Jermaine Defoe’s pace. And, of course, they’ll be looking for Wayne Rooney, who will mercilessly punish any moment of inattention from the U.S. center backs.

3. Speaking of the way the United States plays, you just know Fabio Capello is blissfully aware of how easily the Americans have been stretched out of shape, exposing themselves with gaps in the back as they come forward. That’s why I’m certain we’ll see Steve Cherundolo instead of Jonathan Spector at right back, and why Carlos Bocanegra will be very cautious about straying forward at left back. Still, I’d expect the United States to lose their shape and fail to cover a couple of times, and probably be punished for it once.

Two things the Americans simply cannot do: they cannot fall behind, as has been the tendency so often over the last year or so, and; they cannot lose their shape on defense or fail to keep the two lines of four (defenders and midfielders) connected.

4. All is not lost, however, if the United States does fall behind. While it’s true that the United States fell behind in four of six qualifiers, Bradley’s boys showed a lot of resilient pluck in rallying from deficits during the dash to South Africa. They tend to prosper under duress.

Similarly, the United States plays better with a chip on its shoulder. Remember last year how shoddy the side looked over two matches in the Confederations Cup? And that came after an unconvincing spring run. So, just as the complaints over form of several players reached a crescendo, and just as everyone started writing off the team as no better than the one that flopped at Germany 2006, a chastened U.S. side brushed Egypt aside and then made headlines by upsetting mighty Spain.

If the American players feel disrespected, they’ll dig deeper for the stores of fightin’ and scrappin’ and they’ll be better for it. As U.S. Soccer has grown, they’ve lost some of that, some of what helped a marginally talented 1994 team – and I’m being kind – squeeze into the second round. If the current team doesn’t find that useful chip on Saturday in Rustenburg, I bet will see it five nights later against Slovenia.

5. Any team in any sport that enters a season or tournament attached to so many "if this happens …" may be steering toward a ditch. In the back of your mind, aren’t you thinking something like this: "We’ll be OK if Oguchi Onyewu is 100 percent fiddle-fit and ready." And, "We’ll be OK if Edson Buddle or Robbie Findley can score some goals." And, "… if Jay DeMerit can play better than he did against Australia." And on it goes. If you’re pinning hopes on too many variables that aren’t leaning your way, you’re probably in a wee bit of trouble.

Then again, England has looked like crap lately, so the U.S. could miss on a couple of these and still manage to be OK.

Prediction: Can the United States win? Absolutely. Landon Donovan has the pace and the soccer brain to beat an England defense that’s weakened by Rio Ferdinand’s absence. And who could doubt that Tim Howard has big saves to contribute? On the other hand, the United States is vulnerable at center back and in the spot alongside Michael Bradley in the middle of the park. Ricardo Clark and Maurice Edu each have their weaknesses (depending on which one Bradley picks). And whoever plays in there, I don’t particularly like the central midfield’s chances against Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Best guess: England 2, United States 1.

Steve Davis is on the ground in South Africa for World Cup 2010. In addition to updating the world through Daily Soccer Fix, Steve will be contributing to SB Nation Soccer.

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