JOHANNESBURG – Four years of anticipation could boil down to just 90 minutes on Saturday as the United States takes on England in the teams’ vital opening World Cup match.
A positive result against one of the world’s top teams would leave Bob Bradley’s U.S. squad on the verge of qualifying for the second round, while a defeat would ensure a tough battle for survival in the last two games of the group phase.
The much-anticipated showdown will come down to a series of mini-battles all over the field as the Americans look for ways to stifle England’s imposing lineup of stars.
Here are five key tactical components that could mean the difference between glory and disaster. We also provide hints on how to follow all of the action from Rustenburg.
1. USA’s need for speed
The best way for the U.S. to give England some nervous moments is by using the raw foot speed of Robbie Findley, the only player on the American team to possess the kind of genuine pace that scare opposing defenses.
Findley comes from a family of athletes and has explosive physical gifts. His cousins include Atlanta Hawks point guard Mike Bibby, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Shaun McDonald and New York Knicks guard Eddie House.
England’s defense is missing its captain, Rio Ferdinand, with Ledley King expected to replace him and make his World Cup debut. However, Findley will need to target John Terry, once known as a defensive rock but now best remembered for his rock-headed behavior that included sleeping with a teammate’s former girlfriend.
Look out for: Terry and King pushing upfield. By doing so, the England center backs will try and catch the Americans offside. Watch Findley try to time his runs so he can outsprint the sluggish England defenders.
2. The muddle in the middle
The center of midfield is a critical area for the Americans because England’s strength is based around a core spearheaded by Chelsea star Frank Lampard and new captain Steven Gerrard.
Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark were like startled deer in the Wembley Stadium floodlights when the two sides met in 2008. The U.S. must pray that duo has matured enough to hold firm amid a predicted onslaught.
Look out for: Lampard. He is the man who makes everything tick for England. If he is allowed too much time on the ball, he call pull the strings for England and tear the U.S. apart. Bradley and Clark need to harass Lampard constantly and force him to offload passes quickly.
3. A Roo-d awakening
Wayne Rooney is often described as the last ever English player to come “from the streets.” In his youth, the Manchester United superstar honed his skills on the mean streets of Liverpool and the flair and imagination he developed has defined his career.
Dealing with Rooney is tough enough for any defense – let alone one with big concerns like the USA. Oguchi Onyewu has barely played for eight months due to a knee injury, Jay DeMerit has vision problems and Carlos Bocanegra recently underwent hernia surgery. If they can’t control Rooney, it could get ugly in a hurry.
Look out for: Rooney going one-on-one. If Onyewu or DeMerit are left in those situations with Rooney, it could spell real trouble for the Americans. The U.S. will have to time its tackles to perfection, making contact only with the ball and not the flashing feet of the brilliant England forward.
4. An Altidore power surge
While Rooney smashed home 26 goals in the English Premier League last season, American striker Jozy Altidore managed just one.
Altidore has performed well for the national team but concerns remain about whether he has the form and confidence to convert scoring opportunities. There were injury concerns all week over the 20-year-old after he injured his ankle in training last week, but Bradley announced Friday that Altidore will start.
Look out for: England defenders trying to unsettle Altidore. And they will attempt to do so with their physicality. It is absolutely vital the American keeps his cool, so be sure to keep an eye on the way he controls balls played in to him. Good control generally means his confidence is high and he is feeling strong.
5. The coaches’ reactions
England chief Fabio Capello and USA coach Bob Bradley are different characters who share some common coaching philosophies. Bradley has long been a big fan of the Italian and his hard-line methods, which include banning cell phones and tomato ketchup from training camps.
However, while Capello wears his heart on the sleeve of his immaculately tailored suit, Bradley is far more reserved in his U.S. sweat jacket. It takes something pretty monumental to elicit as much as a smile from him.
Look out for: Capello’s sideline demeanor. If Capello is on his feet to bark out orders, chances are he is not happy with the structure and system of England. If you see him leaning back in his seat in the dugout with arms and legs crossed, he is pretty satisfied with how things are going. And if you see Bradley smiling … well, it is very good day for the USA.