It’s like bringin a knife to a gunfight, pen to a test
Your chest in the line of fire witcha thin-ass vest
You bringin them Boyz II Men, HOW them boys gon’ win? – Jay-Z, The Takeover
When I moved to Boston, I lived in East Somerville. It’s a working class neighborhood full of Brazilians and Portuguese, and in any other soccer story, any other match preview, I might write about the sounds and sights of East Somerville in June 2006. But this is a story about tomorrow’s match, the first US match of this World Cup, against England. So it’s not about that, nor about them. This is a story about Somerville.
In 1775, it wasn’t Somerville, but Charlestown. Somerville didn’t exist yet. It is a town built on a series of hills, slopes rising to view Boston abeam. Two and a quarter centuries later, I could still see perfectly into town from my porch or bedroom window. I could read the signals on the Old Hancock Building and see the floods bask Fenway Park. The first American flag ever flown brushed the wind at Prospect Hill, at a small fort that still remains.
I knew my neighborhood as East Somerville, but at the bottom of the hill there was an old-folks’ home called Cobble Hill. Back when the whole area was called that, when it was still Charlestown, when the first stars and stripes waved a half-mile up the road, instead of my building, their stood an emplacement of cannon, trained at the city, manned by colonial troops under the watchful eye of a man named George Washington. Those cannon fired at Boston. They chased the redcoats from the city. They chased them all the way to Yorktown. There are signs in New England that read “George Washington slept here.” I slept in a place that could have a sign reading: “George Washington fired here.”
When those cannon went off, chasing Gage and his men out of town, Somerville didn’t have an identity. It didn’t exist. It was a neighborhood in a town that itself is now a neighborhood in Boston. Of course, the nation which it helped bring about didn’t exist, itself being a colony of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. And just as the US has claimed an identity in the intervening years, so has Somerville. It doesn’t have the best reputation, but it is not without its merits, just like the country it helped birth. It’s a bit grimy, a bit seedy, a bit contrarian. At its best, it welcomes immigrants, gives them a place to start anew, and where longtime residents welcome them and embrace them. It loves its children, comes together when things go wrong and fosters a sense of belonging amongst all who live there. At its worst, it thinks too highly of itself, looks backward rather than forward, doesn’t see the stick in its own eye. Like I just said, it’s America.
And the US team is theirs. For a long time, the US (can we get this team a name already? Uncle Sam’s Army is a great name, but it’s for the supporters, not the guys who actually step on the field) didn’t have an identity. They scrapped and struggled. They sweat and bled. They were rash in the tackle and heavy in the boot. In 1950, they even beat the same hated English they face tomorrow. In 1994, the US hosted the tournament and advanced to knockouts. In 1998, they were one of the worst teams to make it. In 2002, with little attention focused on them, they made it to the quarters. In 2006, with hopes high despite a tough group, they crashed out in spectacular fashion.
They have come to success in the last four years. They are the lions of CONCACAF now, surpassing Mexico as the region’s dominant power. They are the only team to defeat Spain in the last three years and nearly knocked off Brazil in the same tournament last year. For years, Americans were known in Europe to provide steady if unspectacular keepers and nothing else. This year, Clint Dempsey played a large part in EPL club Fulham’s run to the Europa League final. Landon Donovan helped lead Everton’s resurgence in the same league, being sung off and begged to stay by the Toffee faithful.
Jose Francisco Torres chose to play for the US rather than Mexico, not because he couldn’t fit in El Tri’s squad, but because he wanted to win. Jozy Altidore is a child of Haitian immigrants. Jonathan Spector is from a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Dempsey is from East Texas; Donovan from San Bernardino County, groomed at an academy in Bradenton, Florida. This team is American. Every American story can be found in these 23 players.
They — We — have found our identity. It is not the samba of Brazil, though we have a player born in Brazil. It is not the long-ball, hard-tackling of Scotland, though we have a player born in Scotland. It is an identity as American as possible: Take what you have, see what it can do, and run it out like that. To quote disgraced American Donald Rumsfeld, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” We know what we have. We know what we want. This is a team used to taking the former and scraping like hell for the latter. The American Dream is becoming more and more a myth with every passing year, but on a field in Rustenberg, South Africa tomorrow afternoon, it might look something like a possibility. God knows in Somerville, the Brazilians, the Portuguese, the Italians, the Salvadorans, the Irish, the Haitians, the just-about-everyone, will be watching, and hoping, that this most American of crews — of stars, of workhorses, of weak links and specialists; of young, of old, of injured and untested; of scared, of proud, of determined and dedicated — can put a few past the occupying bastards that got chased out back before their home had a name.
This is one game. Win the other two and tomorrow’s doesn’t matter a whit. The other two are, in many ways, more important. They are the ones that ensure passage to the next round. Tomorrow is for something greater. Something that says something greater than all the slogans and names our mighty marketing machine can conjure. A victory on the field, against the country that invented the game, in another country they owned and fled in disgrace, would signal an arrival. It would not assert dominance or hegemony. It would not, until the rest of the country gets wind of it, be boastful or arrogant. The game belongs to the world, but a victory would go a long way to saying that, yes, we might be part of that world.
The US strength is in goal, as ever thus. Tim Howard is one of the best keepers in the EPL and England would gladly trade all of their keepers for him. David James, Robert Green and Joe Hart are all good keepers, but prone to mistakes at the least opportune moment. If the US has any real advantage, it is in the screaming maniac between the pipes.
The US backline, however constituted is a reason for worry. Oguchi Onyewu, the Gooch, has been out of action all calendar year. Probably the greatest physical specimen on the team — picture an outside linebacker who’s 6’4″ and can run for days that you can put in coverage or against a left tackle — Onyewu has been rehabbing an injury sustained in qualifying and has looked rather slow since his return. If you hear the name “Bornstein” wait for the anguished cries of those who’ve followed the team. The rest of the defense has looked shaky, not like the line that held Spain’s otherworldly attack at bay last summer. Lacking speed on the outside could be disastrous against England’s wingers.
Luckily, England’s final four are also in the air. Former captain (lost the armband because he fucked his best friend’s and former club and country right back’s wife for months behind his back) John Terry is slowing, and has always been prone to a rash tackle when caught out. Left back Ashley Cole missed a significant portion of the club season due to injury as well, and has yet to prove he’s all the way back. Without Wayne Bridge (the aforementioned shagged-upon poor bastard) the right back situation is, to quote an Englishman I know, “fucking dire, mate … I mean, shit.” And the other centerback is a personal hero, but Ledley King’s knees are duct tape and spit right now and holding up over 90 minutes is a longshot, let alone 7 games.
The midfield is both teams greatest strengths. Against most countries a duo like Dempsey and Donovan would be an advantage: two players who know one another, know the game and have skill out the wazoo. Sadly, England counter with Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Aaron Lennon and someone else from Michael Carrick, James Milner, Gareth Barry, Joe Cole and Shawn Wright-Phillips. For ease of translation, let’s just say the US is, in this case, the Minnesota Twins who are a decent team, but England is the Yankees. Gerrard and Lampard are generational talents. Milner and Lennon have barely begun to reach down and discover their talent. Carrick and Barry can hold and create without issue. Their American counterpart will be likely to not miss matches due to his poorly-timed and thought-out tackles, and he’s the coach’s son.
Up front, good God almighty. England have one of the best and hardest working players in the world in Wayne Rooney, who is probably licking his chops at going against a hobbled Onyewu, let alone the rest of the cats we’ve got back there. Pairing him off with the man my wife once said looked like “a giraffe on ice”, Peter Crouch — a 6’7″ beanpole of a man who is adept with his feet as his head, which is unfair — is close to fucking cheating. Crouch will play away from the ball, waiting for a looping ball to switch sides, draw defenders and then play Rooney into the space they’ve vacated. It will take massive amounts of discipline not to follow his immense shadow. Should Jermaine Defoe replace either starter, England will have added speed and guile to the size (Crouch) and grit (Rooney) that were once there. The English strike force, though a sore spot for many fans of the Three Lions, will be a bear for the shaky American backline.
For the States, we have the Haitian sensation Jozy Altidore, a large and surprisingly fast target man who burst onto the scenes in the Confederations Cup last summer but disappeared into the failure fog that was Hull City during the club season. Alongside him will be two MLS strikers on pretty good form and a guy named Herculez. If coach Bob Bradley would play the 4-2-3-1 that his squad begs for, this wouldn’t be a problem, since no one would be alongside him. Instead, either Edson Buddle or Robbie Findlay will be placed alongside to bring pace and a ground game for the midfielders to play off of.
If I were Bradley, I’d go with this 4-2-3-1 formation:
GK: Tim “TIMMAY!” Howard
DMs: Torres (es un gringo ahora!)-Bradley (coach’s son, y’all!)
But I’m not, and Bradley hasn’t shown any willingness to play like this. It will be a straight 4-4-2, in which Rico Clark takes Torres’ spot, Dempsey and Donovan take the wings, Holden is a sub and Findlay/Buddle (hopefully the latter) plays off Altidore’s shoulder.
England will also, since they basically invented it, play 4-4-2, though they would also benefit from a 4-2-3-1. Fabio Capello is a world-class manager and will have tricks up his sleeve, so that formation or another might come out later, but since progression through the group is pretty much assured, he won’t play that card tomorrow. James; Cole-King-Terry-Warnock; Lennon-Gerrard-Lampard-Cole; Rooney-Crouch. Same against same. This is the equivalent of two armies meeting on a field and marching straight into one another. Should either team come out with a wrinkle or something even greater, it will be up to in game adjustment, at which point I hope it’s Capello and not Bradley that needs to adjust.
I love this team, this US team. I will be wearing my shirt and singing Over There all afternoon. I have hopes and dreams for this team. I want to watch them fight and claw and play like they belong, because they do. They know who they are. They know what they want. I want them to step on the field and look out, like Washington did so many years ago. And I want them to fire off their cannons and chase those occupying bastards back to London. It’s not likely to happen, but if you’d asked the leading minds of their time if the colonies had a chance in 1775, we didn’t have a chance then either. 2-1. Fucking Yanks.