DAVID SMITH - Friday, June 11, 2010
On the eve of perhaps their most anticipated game in recent history, head coach Bob Bradley and his players are clear on the challenges awaiting as they line up against a tough England squad on Saturday in Rustenburg.
While players and fans alike breathed a small sigh of relief when the US was drawn into what many pundits consider one of the more straightforward groups of the World Cup, the team was nevertheless given the tricky prospect of facing one of the favorites in an opening match which could very well set the tone for the remainder of the group stage.
Under head coach Fabio Capello, the Three Lions blew through qualification with an unbeaten record, and come to South Africa with a formidable stable of attacking talent which the Americans know will put their questionably-fit back line to the test.
"We're going to have to defend like bandits," starting keeper Tim Howard bluntly admits. "It's going to be all hands on deck but we seem to find a way to usually do that."
"We've got our work cut out for us, we know that," he continues, "but we also know that collectively we've shown that we can do the job over the course of 90 minutes."
The rabid media frenzy constantly surrounding the English national team does provide opponents a clear picture of all aspects, positive and negative surrounding the team. Shining a bright spotlight on the risks posed by their opponents is an invaluable tool of preparation for the team as they ready themselves, a fact which is even more clear to those who have had the opportunity to face those English players on a weekly basis in league play.
"It helps that you're familiar with them," Fulham standout Clint Dempsey evaluates of his three-plus seasons of experience in the English Premier League. "Whether you play with them or watch them on TV, you'll have an idea of what they can do."
Dempsey makes no mistake of their quality, but is also confident that toppling the world's eighth-ranked team is by no means out of reach.
"[We] know they're a good team - they're top ten in the world," he continues. "We know what their strengths and weakness are, and know what we got to do in order get a result."
"That's what we're going to try to do."
At the center of the English threat lies menacing duo of Wayne Rooney and Steve Gerrard, two players who have proven time and again their ability to confound defenses with their ability to fluidly shift their roles in the team's attack, jointly pulling the strings from the midfield while maintaining the ability to explode forward into the box as an instantaneous strike threat.
"It's very tough," Howard chimes in on dealing simultaneously with this aspect of Rooney and Gerrard. "They do that really well and I think in modern-day football, nobody plays a 4-4-2 anymore where the strikers go right up against your backs and the wingers stay wide."
"They find pockets, create holes and they are given the freedom to roam because they work so hard. What they do is pull you out of your slots, because they want to dictate the tempo, and they want to dictate the pressure."
"It's up to us as a back four and maybe a block of eight to dictate that, close that space down and put them on our terms."
As the Americans' last line of defense, the Everton hero knows that disrupting the flow of their opponents' attack will ultimately provide the best chances for their own admittedly limited chances going forward.
"If we get the opportunities in spurts and spells we're going to attack and show them we can do that."
The importance in the modern game of having players possessing such a flexibility between the midfield and a more advanced role is a necessity which head coach Bob Bradley also fully recognizes from his standpoint. While they lack the starpower of their English counterparts, Bradley pinpoints Dempsey and Landon Donovan as indispensable resources which fit this very role for the American team.
"Landon and Clint are both important attacking players for us," he appraises. "We are lucky they have the ability to play different roles."
"We've seen that with [Clint at] Fulham and we've seen that with Landon at the Galaxy and with Everton," Bradley goes on. "That's something that allows us to have some tactical flexibility and that we can use to our advantage."
Even though the Three Lions are now considered amongst the favorites in South Africa, as recently as two summers ago they were a team in disarray after having missed out on the 2008 European Championships.
With few wholesale changes in the fulcrum of the squad in the time since, their turnaround has been largely attributed to influence of head coach Fabio Capello. Having faced a number of teams led by coaches of similar pedigree in his time at the head of the US National team, the leverage given to an already-talented team by such a master of the game is abundantly clear to Bradley.
"What you expect is that the teams will be well prepared. Tactically they will be right. The mentality will be right."
"[Capello] certainly sets a good tone with his team in terms of how they need to play, and how they go about their business. "
As for the team's chances to repeat their feat of 60 years prior and deal a crippling blow to the English expectations over the course of 90 minutes in Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Howard is under no false pretense of what awaits, but feels that he and his teammates are up to the task.
"It's going to take everything we've got and a boatload of luck as well, but hopefully it goes well for us."
Far more than just jockeying for position in Group C, Bradley well knows and is proud that his squad's performance bears special significance to all lovers of the game connected to the American team on every level, from player to rabid fan.
With this in mind, he has sought to instill a tenacious, never-say-die attitude in his players as they are set to embark on what they hope is a successful South African campaign.
"In football we understand that success is never guaranteed, every time you step on the field, you have to earn it all over again. "
"Every time we step on the field as a national team, we represent all the people who are involved in soccer in the U.S."
"The ability to perform and be successful at the highest level - we understand what that means to everyone."