I didn’t know what to expect when I trekked down to the Green Briar in Brighton Center to watch the US take on England in their first match in pool play for the 2010 World Cup. After all, who likes soccer? Especially after the US failed to qualify out of their pool during the 2006 World Cup. But after spending a couple days hanging out with an English soccer fanatic and getting a crash course in who’s good and who’s great in the world, I decided to check it out. And I’m so glad I did. What I got was a wonderful two hours of sport.
First the match recap. Things were looking down for the US in the opening minutes of the first half. Less than four minutes in, English midfielder Stephen Gerrard put his team up 1-0. England was pressing offensively and the American defense got a bit overwhelmed. A quick pass to the side to Gerrard and he easily beat the defenseman and then goalkeeper Tim Howard for a quick score. However, England seemed to back off offensively after that. It almost seemed like they were content with their one goal and wanted to just play defense to try and preserve the 1-0 lead instead of trying to add to it. Now, I understand that soccer games are commonly low-scoring. However, 86 minutes is too much time to just play defense. And America made them pay. In the 40th minute of play, Clint Dempsey received the ball 40 feet from the goal, turned, and fired. The ball went straight at English goalkeeper Robert Green, but Green mishandled it and it found its way to the back of the net. The game was tied at 1-1.
In the second half, England went on the offensive again. Thanks to far more accurate passing (81.8% vs. 62.2%), England did an excellent job of keeping possession (57% vs 43%) of the ball and keeping it near the US goal. However, stingy defense and some great Tim Howard saves prevented England from scoring at all in the second half. The US, meanwhile, had to play defense most of the second half. They had one second-half drive that looked promising, when forward Jozy Altidore beat his defenseman to the ball and dribbled past him. He pushed it towards the goal and got the shot off, but the English goalkeeper got his hands on it and deflected it off the left goal-post. The US never really mounted another attack after that, content to play for the draw. Eventually, the English tired out and stopped mounting their attacks with suck ferocity. Game play slowed in the last few minutes, and by the end it was clear both teams would settle for the draw. The game ended 1-1, with both teams getting one point in pool play. All in all, not bad for the US, considering how strong the English team is.
I had a blast watching this game. The bar exploded when Dempsey scored his miracle goal (and it really was more of a lucky break than a well-played ball). Chants of USA and “If you won the war, clap your hands” resonated throughout the building. And surprisingly, the American fans drowned out the British ones. I’m not surprised we had better numbers (it’s our country after all), but that we matched the English fans in intensity was new to me.
Soccer is a far more exciting sport than I initially gave it credit for. To just look at the score is to ignore the quality of play. Yes, only two goals were scored. But there were 30 shots in this game, 10 of which were on net. The goalies made exciting saves, the defenders made quality tackles, and the offenses balanced between individual explosive efforts and coordinated team attacks. These are true athletes playing the most popular sport in the world. And the fact that America denies itself this sport (or at least marginalizes it into the fairly unpopular MLS) is unfortunate. There is the same athleticism, the same conviviality of fandom, and the same intensity. These games have just as much meaning to their fans, maybe more so considering the infrequency of the World Cup. This is rivalry on a global scale. Any true sports fan can and should embrace this.