People generally want to think their team is the best one on the field. It might generally be unspoken but there's oftentimes negative stigma attached to gaining a positive result in spite of being less talented, outplayed in many important facets and/or the benefactor of luck. I don't tend to see things that way. I want those in charge of assembling and guiding the teams I support to make their decisions based on good processes, but once the teams are on the field I only care about the final result. I'm unconcerned with how success is achieved, I only want the coaches and players to do everything possible to achieve it.
It is I believe generally acknowledged that the greatest weakness the Americans have is their back line. The midfield and forwards aren't the greatest collection of talent the world has ever seen, but they consistently manage to equal more than the sum of their parts. "Cohesion" is a word you hear a lot when commentators compliment the United States national team, and although it gets a bit repetitive it is absolutely true; the Americans tend to play smart, effective football going forward and when they have had unexpected success at the international level it has been their ability to maintain possession and dictate the run of play that had been responsible. It is always good strategy to prevent the opposition from exploiting your greatest weakness.
I expected England to win this match and I expected them to do so comfortably. I did not expect the US to be embarrassed, but when taking stock of the gulf in talent between the two teams I just couldn't bring myself to expect anything but three points going England's way. With that being said, I thought it obvious that for the US to have a shot at making a game of it, several things would need to happen; the US would need to force England to play long, they would need to have at least 50% of the possession, Landon Donovan would need to be a dominant presence and the good version of Jozy Altidore would need to show up. For the most part, none of these things came to pass. England were allowed to set up shop in the US end for a great deal of the match, Donovan was largely invisible and aside from Altidore's streaking run and near goal in the 65th minute was the only positive impact the talented but incredibly raw young striker was able to muster. The way things ended up playing out resembled very closely my worst-case-scenario, but the Americans were able to hold England to a draw and do so without it seeming anything but well earned.
At the outset, things seemed dire for the Americans. Nerves were quite clearly a factor and the defense fell apart in an almost comical fashion, leading to Gerrard's goal in the 4th minute with the assist from Emile Heskey. (Let it be said also that the big man played out of his mind today. I am sure my compatriot will go into greater detail in her piece, but I will say it again; Heskey is not a great fit for Aston Villa but in the right system with the right supporting cast he is an asset and I think he showed that today.) After the goal, I sent out a Twitter post saying the following:
Our defense is shit and we are fucked
And I absolutely believed it. Everything about that goal and the run up to it seemed to confirm my greatest fears coming into the day. England absolutely picked apart the American back line and the US did themselves no favors by being caught out of position and seemingly confused by a fairly straightforward run. And it didn't get much better after that. England were having their way with the US and it seemed like it was only a matter of time until England put in another and called it a day. But a funny thing happened; the US defense seemed to gain confidence with each failed attack, and midway through the second half the American back line looked different than I had ever seen them before. Onyewu appearing to finally be fit was certainly a big part of that, but it wasn't just him. Cherundolo made James Milner a non-factor from the outset and did the same to Shaun Wright-Phillips. Bocanegra looked like his old self. DeMerit was...not a disaster. Despite having to face an England attack featuring Gerrard, Lampard and Rooney that was generally allowed to proceed from a set position, the defense acquitted itself wonderfully. I would be lying if I said that had Tim Howard not been in goal the result almost certainly would have been different, but the US back line played better than I could have ever dreamed possible, and that was huge.
Speaking of Tim Howard, the man absolutely defined brilliance today. I am generally skeptical that goalkeepers can have anywhere near the impact on a game that outfield players can, but Tim Howard contributed as much as any goalkeeper could. Had Emile Heskey's challenge resulted in a more severe injury, I cannot picture the US escaping with a draw. That was a very special performance by a very special player and it is one that I am thrilled to have been able to witness.
Robert Green put in a similarly legendary performance, but I think it is fair to say that it is legendary for entirely different reasons than that of Howard. I've watched several replays from several angles and while Dempsey hit the ball hard and there's a reason you take shots like that in the first place, there's no prettifying the end result. That's a save every keeper at every level should make 100% of the time, and Green didn't. And from a neutral perspective, that's kind of a shame. Green made a few very nice saves today. Several of his goal kicks led directly to dangerous attacks. His stop of Altidore's effort in 65th minute was frankly incredible; Jozy score 99% of the time from the angle with that shot, and while you could make the argument that Green was responsible for England not winning you could also make an argument that by making that stop he is responsible for England not losing. And while I'm thrilled that he let the ball get past him, I also feel for the man. Messing up that badly on that massive of a stage is something I doubt I will ever experience, but I can imagine it kind of sucks a lot.
Altidore's near-goal seemed to awaken Wayne Rooney and the cursed little troll commenced to make the next twenty-five minutes of my life a living hell. When Wayne Rooney is ineffective, he's easy to forget. He's not the biggest guy on the pitch, he doesn't tend to hold possession for too long and when a team's only scoring threat at the forward position isn't making much of an impact he's generally not going to be in the center of the camera's gaze. When Wayne Rooney is making impact, however, he is absolutely everywhere, and it's terrifying. I almost wish that I could root for a team he is playing for, because I would imagine it is fun to see but on the opposite end of things the closest thing I can equate it to that I have personally experienced is sitting in a basement with tornado sirens blaring, hearing the winds roar around you and waiting for the roof to be blown off.
In the end, he didn't manage to find the back of the net and neither did anyone else. England's supporters are frustrated, and I can certainly understand that. They were legitimately the better team for the majority of the game. What matters to me is that the US put themselves in a position to emerge with a positive result. Yes, they benefited from Green's error but it was not as though that was their only legitimate chance. I've seen teams absolutely fluke their way to success, and that's not what happened today. It was clear from the outset that England were going to dictate things and the Americans were able to adjust and do what they needed to do to hang on for the draw. That's a big deal. In some ways it's a bigger deal than it would be had the US been able to execute their gameplan and earn the result on their own terms. They took on everything England brought their way and managed to fight back on several occasions. The team as a whole played as well as they possibly could have given the circumstances, and I am tremendously proud of their effort.
I've been following the national team since I was eleven years old. And while I've always pulled for their success it's always been in a somewhat detached manner. I've never really totally understood why that was; part of it is certainly the fact that soccer hasn't been at the forefront of my sports fandom for all that long in the grand scheme of things, and seeing as how there is far less importance placed on international competition in other major American sports I've never felt the same emotional connection to national teams as I do the professional teams that I support. I've felt that changing a lot these past few months, though. I can't really explain why or when, but I know that today I reached the point of no return. I've gone from fan to die-hard before and I know what it feels like. Today, I felt it before the match even started. And the team didn't let me down.
England were more talented, they outplayed the US in many important facets of the game and the US were the benefactors of luck. And to me, none of that matters. All that matters is that the US were able to stand up to superior competition and earn a positive result. I'm not going to kid myself and think that the US are suddenly on the cusp of joining the global elite, but today they showed they're capable of playing with a team that is on the biggest possible stage. That's pretty cool.