Sometime during the second half of the U.S.'s hard-fought 1-1 draw with England in the Group C opener in Rustenburg, a strange thought danced through my head -- or as much as thought as gurgling acid in my nervous stomach would allow. Actually, let's be more specific, it came when England back Glen Johnson rampaged forward into his beloved pocket of space up field and on the edge of the box to fire what I figured would be a game-winner.
Nobody plays right back quite like Johnson, now do they, I thought.
Driving home many hours (and a few beers) later it dawned on me, Johnson is a right-footed Roberto Carlos. Okay, not nearly as accomplished as the Brazilian ace, but clearly no slouch, he has won the Premier League and FA Cup at two different clubs.
Why would Johnson, an Englishman, play a position like a swashbuckling Brazilian legend?
Probably because Johnson, 25, growing up in England, had plenty of access to watch Roberto Carlos work his magic in the Champions League for Real Madrid, or for Brazil at the World Cup. He could view Roberto Carlos on television and then apply those tricks and refine them on the training ground.
Meanwhile, take a look across the ground for the bulk of U.S. players on the field at Royal Bafokong Stadium. Who were their heroes? Who were their players to emulate. The bulk of this team grew up in a world before MLS, before Fox Soccer Channel, a world where international matches and games from Mexico were about the only ones on American airwaves.
For better or worse, the U.S. has gone about its growth on the world stage of soccer on its own.
A lot has been made, recently, about the U.S. adopting or developing its own "football culture", likely spurred on by comments of would-be USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
As the 90 minutes in Rustenburg played out, we saw the three essential tenets of U.S. soccer on display, working in concert to earn the USMNT a vitally important point in the 2010 World Cup opener -- just remember the difference between one point and zero is monumental. With one point, chances are going into the final group game, you're still alive.
1. Great goalkeepers.
2. A gung-ho, rah-rah, never-say-die honest approach to the game.
3. An American professional sports approach to scouting, game-planning and video tape watching.
In a dream world is this what American soccer would be known for?
Not if I personally had my druthers. Then again, international football isn't a beauty contest any more. It's about figuring a way to lodge results. The world is too small, the talent gaps closed so much, the media pressure so high that teams like Brazil 70 or 82 aren't happening again.
Would you rather have dull winners or brilliant losers? Go ask from 50-year-old fans of the Dutch Oranje. Wait, the Dutch ethos might actually appreciate the lovable, admirable losers.
Th showcase event of the "Beautiful Game" has morphed into learning how to win ugly.
Looking at the points I outlined, the goalkeeping situation is straightforward.
Tim Howard, even after getting Emile Heskey's studs to the gut, was awesome making every save after Steve Gerrard squirted by Rico Clark and popped in a goal under his legs in the fourth minute* Howard stood tall and made every stop he needed to make.
* Stunning, U.S. concedes quicker on the clock than they did in 2006 vs. the Czechs, but rallies for a result. It wasn't deja-vu all over again, mercifully.
This, of course, wasn't much of a surprise or a revelation. The U.S. has been producing top class keepers for decades. It worth talking about since Robert Green had one of the World Cup's all-time worse gaffes, fumbling Clint Dempsey's knuckle-ball shot in the 40th minute to gift the U.S. an eventual point.
The crazy thing was that the pregame talking point was that if the U.S. had one clear-cut positional advantage, it was at keeper -- and it came to fruition. Go figure.
Now maybe a cultured European or South American fan is never going to appreciate a blood-and-guts player like Jay DeMerit. Fine by me. If he wasn't American I'd probably pay him no never mind either. Saturday, though, the self-made player owned Wayne Rooney, holding the Manchester United star without one really good clear-cut chance. The World Cup, maybe more than any sports tournament, is about what you do on the field for 90 minutes, as opposed to what your resume says you're "supposed" to be able to do. Simple, but true.
The U.S. players, though, are in many ways a breath of fresh air in the world of International soccer.
They don't writhe in agony after a tackle ... unless, like, Howard they need pain killers at halftime. Nor do they pop right back up after a little embellishment. They aren't petulant, nor do they throw hissy fits on the field.
There was a point in the second half when England was breaking with three players, Rooney leading it, at the U.S. defense. Oguchi Onyewu went down on a slide tackle, missed, but got back up to finish the play. There was no give up there.
Players don't wait for the ref's whistle to bail them out.** They give an honest account, which England usually does too.
** Part of this might be because the state of officiating soccer in the U.S. from the youth level on up is terrible. U.S. players don't grow up waiting for the whistle. They learn to play through bad calls or missed calls at an early age, instead of some players who stop what they're doing to browbeat the official when the game is still being played.
It's a cliche, yeah, but the U.S. players leave it on the field. The idea of giving up on a play isn't part of the U.S. soccer ethos. U.S. players don't want to be laughed at back home for being "Euro fancy men."
The biggest revelation and upset from Saturday's draw was that Bob Bradley completely coached Fabio Capello out of his tailored suit pants. For a guy with Capello's resume, that was a pretty awful display of over-managing by Capello, especially for a first game, as he did everything in his power to lose the dressing room.
Saturday reminded me of the Patriots/Rams Super Bowl, where Bill Belichick took Mike Martz "The Mad Scientist" to school, guiding the massively less skilled Pats to victory, if almost through deception.
Part of me is upset that it took me so long to make the Bradley-Belichick connection.
Bradley, like Belichick, isn't a lovable, warm personality. He's a coach, no more, no less.
When he talks to the media, it's begrudgingly in coachspeak, not in warm and funny anecdotes.
Does he have the tactical nous of a Capello? Probably not. What Bradley and his staff did do is compile plenty of game tape and hash out an old NFL-styled*** gameplan against the Three Lions.
And thanks to Green being unable to handle Dempsey's moment of semi-brilliance, that plan worked.
*** Watching game film is a staple of U.S. sports. How about around the globe?
The U.S. dug in, (amazingly) man-marked Rooney out of the match, made England do most of its work on the wings and applied enough pressure forward through Dempsey and Landon Donovan to keep the English honest and voila -- one vital point.
The U.S. made sure not to leave space so they're be exposed. That's smart coaching, which came from plenty of scouting and late nights in the film/DVD room.
Aside from the World Cup, fans around the globe probably don't see a ton of international games. Think about it, you watch your national team, maybe a game here or there, but mostly these games all kick off at the same time, so you're reduced to the highlights. You can -- like everyone else -- lump in the players and think how they play for their clubs and form an expection of how the national team should play. Without watching a national team play as a unit you don't get a good enough gauge or tendencies. We've seen forever throughout history great club players stink with their national team and vice versa.
Bradley and his staff certainly saw enough England to devise a plan that could work.
He threw out his "foxhole" guys, the guys he could trust, the good soldiers like Steve Cherundolo, who's play at right back made Capello pull James Milner within the first half hour in a classic overreaction. Hell, Capello got sucked into the Gerrard-Lampard midfield abyss, too, with Lampard hardly effective at all aside from a nice left-foot crack Howard tipped over for a corner.
Obviously one thing Bradley couldn't coach, but worked in his favor, was the massive burden of expectations lumped on the Three Lions at every Cup. The English media are totally schizophrenic jumping between extreme jingoism of wanting them to win, but then heaping expectations and tearing them down at the first hiccup.
England have great players -- hell if it counts for anything, it's rated better than Brazil from a numbers standpoint in the World Cup video game -- but in a weird way when things turn sideways, all those Crosses of St. George lining the stadium end up choking the team on the field.
The English media still have that haughty arrogance, wishing it was still the 1930s when England still ruled the football world, even if the players -- maybe not Shaun Wright-Phillips who looked like he felt he was entitled to do anything he pleased, including a swinging headlock on Cherundolo -- seem to be fairly hard-working and honest.
But hey, that's England's problem.
Gerrard did take the pressure off England inside four minutes, from there the U.S. seemed to thrive under the burden of chasing the game for a change. Granted, the pressure from the U.S. public on the team compared to what the English do is a mountain vs. mole hill scenario.
That said, if Jozy Altidore's late run produced a winner, nobody outside of England would have said the U.S. didn't "deserve" three points.
The way the U.S. plays isn't sexy.
They aren't the kind of dish that would win a contestant "Top Chef."
What they are is a solid, meat-and-potatoes team with Dempsey providing a kick of A-1 sauce.
Saturday's first course ensured the U.S. should be able to stick around at the World Cup table for just a little bit longer.
Hey, I've been starving for four long years, I'm ready to eat no matter how it tastes.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou:
Here's all you need to know how big this game was in America, my brother watched it with me and some friends. He doesn't care one iota about sports, but has somewhat of a soft spot in his heart for the World Cup. Maybe all of our old FIFA games of Ireland vs. Cameroon. Who knows.
It's always refreshing, too, to get perspective from a person who doesn't care about ESPN or the way we look at sports. He didn't know really anything about the U.S., except that Dempsey is a rapper and he was fine with it. He's American and that's all he needs to know about the U.S. team.
Hey, after all as he surmises, it's the World Cup.
So yeah, if my brother -- who's one of the people that doesn't watch the Super Bowl -- cared enough to watch the U.S./England match, I'm thinking that rating number is going to be huge for ABC.
Plus it was nice to have him around to help absorb some of my tension, since it was heart-in-throat stuff from the opening whistle, which turned this into a huge television moment. It was nice, too, to get sloshed during and after the game and not get hung up via paralysis by analysis, which the World Cup falls prey to sometimes.
The World Cup isn't always about great soccer, it's about great drama and the U.S. game had that in spades, especially if you want to throw the dates 1776 and 1950 into the mix.
On a Saturday afternoon in June, the American public -- I hope -- finally had their "a-ha" moment. Maybe they won't love soccer 365 days a year, but if most Americans can root for the national team and care about the World Cup every four years, that's quite cromulent with me. At the very least, there will probably be a ton of sick days called in next Friday morning for the Slovenia match.
As I put the finishing touches on this post, the New York Daily News has photos from the match adorning the front-and-back covers. That's something I never thought I'd ever see. Some how the old media finally realized they had nothing to gain by ignoring or marginalizing the World Cup.
And hell, if Mike Francesa even mentions the game on WFAN come Monday, my head might finally explode like the dude from "Scanners."
It's not going to be easy being Robert Green:
Part of me wishes Robert Green borrowed a phrase from UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun after a reporter chastised him for not recruiting Ryan Gomes, who was from Waterbury, Conn., but went to Providence.
"I fucked up. What do you want me to say? Write it. I fucked up."
As easy as it is to fillet Green, what's the point, really?
I'll give more credit to Dempsey for attempting the shot more than anything.
Green didn't duck responsibility. He faced the press. He didn't blame Borat's mustache, either.
My guess is Capello sticks with Green in net. He did (luckily) throw his body in front of Altidore's shot, which would have won it for the U.S. late. Green, if you watched West Ham this year, probably shouldn't have been out there in the first place.
As crazy as it sounds, this might end up uniting the England team, especially if press skewers him.
Think about it, how many of the England players haven't been killed by the media?
John Terry, yeah, I think so. Johnson, didn't he steal a toilet seat? Ashely Cole, doesn't he live in the tabloids with his pop-star wife? "Fat Frank." Gerrard ... Phil Collins, need I say more?
Perhaps the England team unites behind the tried-and-true enemy of the sports world -- the media.
Goal keeping gaffes are a part of the game. Fortunately for Green, it came in the first game of the Cup, not England's last.
Wonder if Green had heard of Bill Buckner before Saturday?
[Update, knew I forgot one joke, so I may recycle it. Anyway, as long as Green doesn't end up spouting about alien conspiracies like David Icke, he'll be okay.]
* Seemed on the Twitter lots of voices were angry Bradley didn't make a sub for offense around the 60th minute on, until finally bringing on Stuart Holden and Edson Buddle late. In theory, yeah, this is sound. Sometimes however in a defensive-oriented match like that, bringing in a cold player on the bench who's not used the pacing and tenor of the match comes back to haunt you. The "fresh legs" argument isn't always as cut-and-dried as it seems. Not upset with Bradley sticking with the guys who were grinding out the match. England was out of subs, too. Sometimes feel is more important than freshness.
* Clark was in line for the Green treatment after letting Gerrard get away for the goal, but he did make an excellent block on a tantalizing ball across the goalmouth in the first half.
* Even with his tragic beard which made him look 10 years older, Onyewu played okay and certainly light years better than the 2006 opener vs. the Czechs where he directly set up both goals from Tomas Rosicky.
* Who wears short-shorts? Stuart Pearce wears short-shorts.
* Thank whatever deity you pray to that Rooney picked, as the kids say, "the wrong day to stop sniffing glue." Bad game for Rooney, but he can't afford any more in the Cup. It goes by to quickly. For a team to win the World Cup, it needs its best players at their best. England and Rooney know this grim reality all too well.
* Apologies to Emile Heskey, you might have been England's best player Saturday. You're still the English Brian Ching, but maybe that's a compliment today.
* John Terry v. Robbie Findley = mismatch.
* As I teased on Twitter, I finally deleted the June 12, 2006 match from my DVR. I was going to post on it, but didn't want to louse up the karma for the England game. Watching a little bit of that game, it's hard to believe ESPN produced the 2006 World Cup and what they're doing now in South Africa. From twin-engine propeller puddle jumper to a Lear jet, frankly.
* Amazing dynamic between Alexi Lalas and Ruud Gullit. Lalas is a cartoon character, playing the role as cheerleader. That's okay. So be it. Gullit, though, he knows his stuff and analyzes the game fairly and precisely. Even with his ill-fated stay in MLS, he appears to bear no grudges. He calls it like it is. What a fantastic hire by ESPN. Maybe the English -- who seem to hate every TV analyst -- would disagree, but the Dutchman is the best we've seen on ESPN for soccer since I've been watching.
I'm not trying to be mean, or sexist or anything other than honest. You can't compare Julie Foudy breaking down a game to Gullit. The saddest part of this was that Foudy was the best analyst ESPN had in 2006.
* Weird, flipped over the Red Sox/Phillies on Fox after the U.S. game and ... it just seemed like such a let down. Couldn't watch.
* How does Sepp Blatter pick a place to host a World Cup match that doesn't have a clock inside the stadium?
* Saturday's game was the World Cup, or at least the group stages, in a nutshell. Talent, once the whistle blows, gets offset by heart, determination and the bounce of the ball.
As I write this, Slovenia is doing a group Jazz Hands display, thanks to Robert Koren's goal, beating Algeria 1-0.
The onus now falls for the U.S. to take it to Slovenia and get three points. The Slovenians best attribute seems to be set pieces. The U.S. can't lie deep and man mark one striker, like it did to Rooney. Slovenia, with lesser names than England, are scary in the fact anyone could pop up and score.
Also, U.S. plays best against the better teams or when people expect less. When they're expected to win a game? Makes me nervy.
As anyone who's read this little slice of the soccer Inter-nets knows, I've never been the biggest fan of "The Elder" on the planet. His personality, for whatever the reason, didn't inspire faith or adoration.
At least I know come Friday he'll have a game plan ... but this time the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the U.S.