This was England, after all, the team that swept through World Cup qualifying as though armed with bayonets. They had not merely qualified for the tournament, they had stormed its gates, signaling to the world that this England side was ready to leave behind 20 years of mediocrity and make a serious run at the cup.
Yet on a cool day in Rustenberg, South Africa, it was difficult to escape the impression that this was, once again, an England somehow less than the sum of its parts, and that the USA’s draw – while respectable – was something less impressive than it would have seemed only a day ago.
England was supposed to be a yardstick for the USA. Like Spain and Brazil in last year’s Confederations Cup, England was supposed to be a soccer doctorate in 90 minutes – a test to see if the US had, at last, graduated to the Ph.D. level of world soccer. Or, at least, how far it still needed to go.
Instead, the game was more an indictment of England’s championship credentials.
The US competed admirably and, at times, equally with a team ranked No. 3 on ESPN’s World Soccer Index. Yet it was hardly a game to stir the soul.
In its games against Spain and Brazil last year, the USA had a bit of “Rocky” about it. For minute after minute, it absorbed a beating from the best the world had to offer, only to slip off the ropes and deliver a knockout blow. Landon Donovan’s goal against Brazil is probably the greatest goal scored in US soccer history.
Saturday’s game approached that level only once, when American forward Jozy Altidore bore down in the English goal with a ferocity that seemed to make the earth tremble, only for England goalkeeper Robert Green to pull off an exceptional save, with the help of the left goalpost.
Yet at other moments, the game was far too pedestrian. Forget England goalkeeper Green’s blunder to gift the USA its crucial goal. More insidious, but perhaps equally as worrying, was England’s repeated inability to force USA’s Tim Howard into a difficult save. In the most crucial moments, England invariably shot directly at him.
When Emile Heskey was alone in front of goal, his shot was impossible for Howard not to save.
Another time, England forward Wayne Rooney helplessly watched a cross sail over his head when there was not an American defender in the same ZIP code.
These are hardly schoolboy soccer mistakes. “Nil-nil” might be a taunt of the American soccerphobe, but it is also instructive: scoring in soccer is hard.
Yet neither are these mistakes that Spain or Brazil would make with such regularity.
They allowed America to emerge with its growing reputation intact, and perhaps enhanced. And not unjustly. Viewers needed a GPS system just to locate Rooney during the first half in part because the USA defense marginalized him.
Moreover, this was no miracle draw. The US, while clearly overmatched on the teamsheet, was rarely overmatched on the field.
No, it was more a matter of England not being the foe many had expected them to be.
This doesn’t mean they are impostors. For World Cup champions, the tournament is often a crescendo, and England has the means to right itself.
But it means that a 1-1 draw against England is not necessarily a pass to the second round. Even well off its top form, England is probably still better than the USA’s other Group C rivals, Slovenia and Algeria.
Then again, the USA will need to do better than draw against Slovenia (Friday) and Algeria (June 23) to advance.
World Cup 101: