Friday, June 11, 2010

ATH: Scouting US v England


ESPN, ESPN Deportes, and Univision have the World Cup: South Africa - Mexico at 10am and Uruguay - France at 2:30pm. All Times Eastern

Scouting Report: England

By Clemente Lisi -- USA - England is one of the most-anticipated first round matches at the World Cup. When it comes to soccer, the Americans and the English are connected in many ways. A common language, the upset in 1950, the influx of American players in the Premiership over the last 15 years, and the English Premier League's popularity on this side of the pond all help fuel the rivalry.

“Look, we’re not as talented as England... period,” Landon Donovan said following the US’s 2-1 win over Turkey in its last friendly at home two weeks ago before flying to South Africa. “That’s the beauty of sports. On any given day, one team can beat another.”

During the World Cup draw last December in Cape Town, dozens of US fans who had gathered at the ESPN Zone in New York’s Times Square were abuzz about the possibility of playing England in South Africa.

“En-gland! En-gland! We want En-gland,” a small, but loud, group of US fans shouted at the TV screens moments. Donovan was sitting in the same restaurant watching the screens as his Los Angeles Galaxy teammate David Beckham plucked out a plastic ball that put the US in Group C along with England. A nervous smile came over his face.

“It could have been worse,” Donovan said with a sigh and a smirk.

Six months later and that dream match-up - a rematch of the US’s 1-0 shocker over England at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil - is now just a day away.

Indeed, of the eight groups at the World Cup, Group C is the only one with two clear favorites - England and the US - to go through to the next round. Even though most expect the English and Americans to leave Slovenia and Algeria behind, the US would be doing itself some harm if it underestimates these two sides.

The Americans open against the Three Lions, a tough first game, although the English have had a knack for ultimately being a disappointment at the tournament. England is stacked with talent (minus David Beckham who ruptured his left Achilles tendon in a game with AC Milan this past March and their captain Rio Ferdinand injured in training) and has a roster very familiar to the legions of Americans that follow the Premiership every weekend.

Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard will all be there. So will Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Donovan - players with EPL experience of their own - in what promises to be an epic game.

“It’s going to be a lot for (the US) to handle,” said ESPN analyst and former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Having said that, the US has very little to lose. It’s the first game and the US can afford to lose if it can pick up points in its subsequent two games.”

England has been inconsistent lately. Unconvincing wins over Mexico (3-1) and Japan (2-1 thanks to two own goals) in warm-up matches last month revealed a series of problems. Theo Walcott struggled to gain his form in recent weeks and was cut from the 23-man roster, while defender Rio Ferdinand injured himself in practice last week and is out of the tournament.

The problems don’t end there. With no obvious candidate for the midfield holding role and questions swirling on who will be the first-choice goalkeeper have given their Italian-born coach Fabio Capello sleepless nights and possibly have him rethinking his 4-5-1 formation.

Against Japan, England's defense played like a group of strangers who had gotten together for the first time for a pick-up game in the park. Although pre-World Cup friendlies are no real measure of how a team will ultimately perform, it did come at a bad time. Just when a team should be gelling, the English are not at all the well-drilled unit needed to succeed in South Africa.

Capello has repeatedly said that the only way for England to win - to steal a phrase from his more successful countryman Marcello Lippi – is for “the spirit of the group” to emerge as a dominating factor on a team of individual stars. Easier said than done. Lippi did that four years ago with the Azzurri. Capello still has a long way to go.

The surprise exclusion of Darren Bent means that the English will be without one of the Premiership’s top scorers. For Bent, it was the second time in four years that he's failed to crack the World Cup roster. A consistently solid attacking player, Bent tallied an impressive 24 goals for Sunderland in the EPL this past season - only Rooney scored more among English-born players.

Although he called up 59 players since taking over in 2008, Capello has done little to the core group that played so poorly under Sven-Goran Eriksson at Germany '06. While the nagging question of whether Gerrard can play alongside Lampard in central midfield rages on, Capello is likely to gamble and deploy that combo against the US. In other words, Capello is banking on established stars to try and make a run of it at this World Cup. For the US, it means having to play against a group that is very familiar to them - an edge Bob Bradley's men will have to capitalize on.

An unheralded player who can make the difference in the back for England is Jamie Carragher. He may not possess style, but is under pressure with his ball control skills. Rooney is the striker everyone fears, but he is currently on a five-game scoring drought. Whether he has lost his scoring touch remains to be seen, but Rooney’s inability to find the back of the net is something that bodes well for the US. Confidence, meanwhile, is high among the Americans after last Saturday’s 3-1 demolition of Australia.

Donovan, who played for Everton this past season during a very successful loan spell, said playing in the EPL has improved him and he’s ready for the challenge.

“It made me a better player,” he said. “I learned a lot technically and tactically from playing there. I think it’s really going to be a great game.”

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, a Premiership vet who plays for Everton, said England would play conservatively in given that it’s the tournament’s first game for both sides.

“England is a fantastic team. We going to have to defend as a group and attack the ball in packs,” he said. “They will establish the rhythm as a team, like all big teams usually do, but we have to play our game. I suspect they will be a little bit tight.”

The Americans are hoping for a repeat upset of 1950. England is looking to start the tournament without what would be seen as a substantial setback. The stakes are high, exactly what both countries should want on the game's biggest stage... if maybe not so soon.

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