The American team and its supporters were able to breathe a sigh of relief after 90 minutes when English keeper Robert Green’s blunder on Clint Dempsey’s rather tame shot from 25 yards out proved to be enough to grab the Yanks a tie and an all important point against one of the Cup’s favorites.
But any celebration for the Americans was cut short Sunday morning. Algerian keeper Fawzi Chaouchi’s undid his team’s chances against Slovenia in the 79th minute when an apparent lapse of concentration caused a manageable shot to hit the back of his net – a slip-up that was nearly a mirror error of Green’s the day before, but this time, the Americans were on the short end of the deal.
Ever since the groups were drawn in December, everyone has eyed the England match as the most important for the United States, but with Slovenia leading the group at the end of round one, the Yanks stare down two fixtures more difficult than their first.
In a sense, the England game was always going to be the easiest for the States. On the opening day for two teams in the World Cup, any result is possible. Whether nerves rattle a favorite or an underdog rises to the occasion, or the opposite occurs and a rarely appearing country chokes on the biggest stage and is trounced by a veteran country, the shear magnitude of the World Cup is enough to flip the best and the worst of the game on their heads before they can realize.
With their backs against the wall and less expectation looming over them than the English side, the States had much less pressure on their shoulders to restrict them. In that sense, yes, it was easy for the Americans. A loss and the world would shrug, and the Americans would be disappointed. A win or tie and the world is shocked while the Americans applaud their boys and boast a smirk that says, “See, World, I told you not to underestimate our guys.”
The States performed admirably and emerged from the fray with a well-deserved point against their most skilled opponent. But that moment is past them, and now they are the ones playing in Expectation’s shadow. Slovenia’s win and the Yanks’ solid performance are stirring the pot of the U.S.A.’s chances.
Many would say the English choked against an opponent they were expected to beat (there isn’t much debate Robert Green did), and the States, behind two points with two games remaining, must be cautious not to do the same.
With Slovenia at the top of the group, they could draw their two remaining games and stamp their ticket to the knock-out phase on goal differential if it came to that. Fortunately for Slovenia, that plays perfectly into their hands.
After allowing only four goals in 10 qualifying games, stingy is a good place to start describing the country’s footballing mentality. A similar approach was seen against Algeria – getting numbers behind the ball and attacking with numbers at the right moment when their opponent broke down. Even though a keeper’s blunder was the breakthrough, they shouldn’t be underestimated coming forward. After all, who are the States to criticize in that department? And just imagine how fired up Slovenia will be as they sit on top of a group and hold a precious chance to advance out of their group.
An early surprise goal against the States would spell disaster after a favorable start to the tournament. Slovenia isn’t the kind of team you want to have to chase, as they have no problem packing it in. Already two points behind in the table, an early goal would also almost force the Americans to score twice against the stubborn Slovenia squad. Two ties most likely wouldn’t cut it, as they’d have to assume England will triumph over Algeria.
Speaking of which, Algeria plays a similar style as Slovenia and showed a heavier lean toward the counterattack in their opener. They’re also a physical, scrappy bunch who like to put their opponents off their rhythm. As the United States face two stubborn teams, and with pressure breathing down their necks, they’ll need a more –rounded performance than the one they produced against England to ensure they don’t stumble out of the group stage.
To start, they’ll need to do a better job getting the ball wide on both sides. With two opponents remaining who like numbers behind the ball, the Americans will need to stretch the defenses to open room inside more so than they did against the English. In that match, they fell into lulls of attacking down the middle rather than using their wide guys, or when those guys pinched in, no one filled the role on the outside.
They’ll also need their stars to step up to the stage. Luckily, solutions to both of these things go hand in hand, as their two best, Donovan and Dempsey, started on the left and right, respectively, against England. Donovan was parched for opportunities on the ball, and Dempsey will need to be more productive because he won’t be handed any gifts from Slovenia. Involving these two in any game is a plus and must for the States, but with them pushed out wide, it’s going to be essential to breaking down these two staunch back lines.
Jozy Altidore was, at times, a surprise headache to group of English guys who have had their way with him all year in the EPL. His cohort Robbie Findley, however, was next to nonexistent. While he put his marker on the backfoot a few times with his pace, his final product and decision making always lacked quality. Perhaps Coach Bradley will give Edson Buddle a proper chance to once again prove he’s capable in front of the net.
While the U.S.A.’s back line slipped up in four minutes, it held some of the world’s most impressive offensive talent to that lone goal. They’ll hope Tim Howard is behind them, but no mater who posts up between the sticks, they’ll have to be sure they’re more stingy than their opponents hope to be, knowing the difficulty of coming from behind against those teams.
The United States didn’t play perfectly against England, but they played well. However, there’s no time for cupcakes and pats on the back. The easy part is finished, and they’ll have to improve on their opening game form if they’re going to deliver on the six-month expectation that they’ll be in the knock-out stage of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Come on, you Yanks. Finish the fight.