The U.S. Soccer Federation couldn't have hoped for a better draw for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A group that gives the U.S. a strong chance to advance and an opening game against England.
There is no bigger international soccer presence in the U.S. than the Barclays Premier League of England. It's a publicist's dream: The U.S. plays England, home to the biggest players of the world, the holy grail for American players, the Landon Donovan and David Beckham subplot.
The hype is there. The question is, can the U.S. live up to it?
England are in top form since the appointment of Fabio Capello as manager. In World Cup qualifying, England went 9-0-1 and led all European qualifiers with 34 goals scored. They also only gave up six goals in their 10 matches.
The U.S., meanwhile, went 6-2-2 with 19 goals for and 13 against. Not that England had a terribly difficult group by UEFA standards, but the competition was stronger than what the U.S. faced.
So on paper, it doesn't look good for the Yanks. However, there are a couple of ways that the U.S. can neutralize England's advantages and some deficiencies in their armor that the U.S. can exploit.
The most glaring advantage that England has is in midfield. England has the deepest and possibly most talented midfield in the world. Gareth Barry, Michael Carrick, Ashley Young, James Milner, Aaron Lennon, Theo Walcott, Stewart Downing, Joe Cole, and David Beckham. Those are the names just fighting to play alongside the near shoo-in selections of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.
There are going to be some names from that list who don't even make it to South Africa. The midfield is that deep, that good.
Although the U.S. has some very good midfielders and great depth, they don't match up with these sort of names. What the U.S. needs to do is to neutralize England's ability to control midfield. The best way to do this would be to instill a 4-2-3-1 formation.
In this formation, coach Bob Bradley can enlist any combination of Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, and Kyle Beckerman into holding midfield roles. By creating traffic in the midfield, the U.S. can effectively make England's possession game more difficult to conduct.
In this scenario, the U.S. sacrifices a forward to disrupt England's midfield flow. Some may think that is a bad idea considering the question marks surrounding Rio Ferdinand's health and whether or not his replacement, whomever it should be, is up to the task.
But with Charlie Davies' uncertain status, is it really worth it for the U.S. to bring in Conor Casey or Brian Ching? Or to move Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan up front to pair with Jozy Altidore?
By having three advanced midfielders supporting Altidore, the U.S. can exploit the tendencies of England's full backs going forward. With the talent of Donovan and Dempsey, the U.S. can take advantage of England's aggressive fullbacks. At the very least England will take notice of Donovan and Dempsey and minimize runs forward from the back.
The width created by Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole is very important to England's attack. If the threat of Donovan and Dempsey can keep them in check, or if the U.S. can take advantage of their aggression, the advanced wingers will have done their job.
Wayne Rooney has always been a favored son in England, but his praises are beginning to be sung around the world. A growing number of players, managers and pundits are hailing Rooney as the best in the world. If the U.S. want to win, they need to neutralize Rooney.
Rooney presents a difficult challenge for the U.S. because of his habit of roaming throughout the attacking third of the field. When the U.S. is successful, it is because of a compact back line that is never spread too thin.
It will be a challenge for the U.S. to stay compact and keep Rooney's space to a minimum simultaneously. The added holding midfielder could aid the U.S. in closing down space but it will be a difficult proposition.
The match will be a lot closer than it looks on paper, if the U.S. can close down the midfield, expose England's fullbacks and contain Rooney they will have a chance. But if closing down England's midfield, exposing their fullbacks and containing Rooney was so easy, everyone else would have already done it.