12 June ~ Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, at the half-time stage of the United States’ final send-off friendly, home fans could have been forgiven for a sense of deep pessimism about their country’s chances of making an impact in South Africa. West Ham’s Jonathon Spector had just been thoroughly tormented by the gifted young Turkish forward, Arda Turan, who had scored to give the Turks a 1-0 lead, but it could easily have been two or three more. Having already lost 4-2 to the Czech Republic four days earlier, the US team’s official, Nike-generated slogan of Don’t Tread On Us was looking as hubristic as it did four years ago when they left Germany with just one point and two goals.
But if last year’s surprise appearance in the Confederations Cup final proved anything, it was the US team’s ability to swiftly transform itself from sluggish pedestrian to motivated athlete. Against Turkey, coach Bob Bradley removed Spector at half-time and instructed Landon Donovan to roam wide. Any team that grants space to Donovan will be punished, and so it proved as the all-time US record holder for caps, goals and assists laid on a brace of chances for Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. In winning 2-1, the US looked as different in the second half as it had done in South Africa last year when it lost to Brazil and Italy, then hammered Egypt and surprised Spain.
When the US play defensively – a necessity for any limited side at this level – it is said to reflect Bradley’s typically dour tactics. Yet when they score thrillingly on the counter-attack, usually through the Donovan-Dempsey-Altidore axis, then poor old Bob rarely gets much credit. The US rode their luck in that 2-0 win over Spain last June that ended the Spaniards’ 35-game unbeaten stretch, yet it remains Spain’s only defeat in the past three years and is proof that the US have the savvy and the work ethic to surprise top sides. The domestic media has, however, largely ignored that astonishing performance in favour of repeatedly recounting the 1950 upset of a complacent England team in Belo Horizonte. Former US captain Walter Bahr has been endlessly wheeled out over the past six months to obligingly opine that yes, he thinks the US team could do it all over again.
Should England be afraid of the US? Certainly not, but they should be wary. Unlike the US media, Fabio Capello will have ignored 1950 and carefully studied that Spain game. It is the only time Spain have been failed to score in their last 17 games, during which they have scored 54 goals. Although the US have major defensive concerns, with the experienced Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra coming back from a long-term injury and recent hernia surgery respectively, there is a dogged confidence in this squad that reflects the slow but sure emergence of football in the United States as a sport that warrants mass consideration. It’s not yet quite Yes We Can, more like Perhaps We Could.
Satirical rag The Onion this week duly rehashed its default angle that football is a minority sport in the US loved only by irksome snobs, but that notion is out of date by at least a decade or two. Almost everybody in the US is aware of the World Cup this time around, and most are intrigued by the prospect of Saturday’s game. Casual fans no longer think that the US team will be worthy of attention only when they become world champions. Knowledge of the global game is expanding as rapidly as the game itself, played by millions of Americans of both sexes. If any further motivation to do well in South Africa was needed, it would be to smack down once and for all the persistent, condescending European and South American view that the Yanks don’t know anything about football.
That condescension masks a fear that the long-term potential of the US is to become a world football power, backed by its wealth, infrastructure, growing professionalism and steady improvements in its coaching philosophies. The current US team lacks the depth at international level to be a likely contender this time around, but whereas England are constantly encumbered by a millstone (1966), the US are motivated by milestones that mark stealthy progress. Looking beyond the irrelevant focus on the fluke of 1950 and its one-off rematch 60 years later, the US football project is perfectly placed to advance. Ian Plenderleith
Read the WSC World Cup preview for the US