Sports Nut

Hello, World Cup

Assessing Team USA’s chances after a final tuneup for South Africa.

PHILADELPHIA—If I had to guess, I’d say the twentysomething wearing a backward Phillies cap and screaming, “Suck it, Turkey!” was not a history major in college. Still, like me, he was transfixed by the first few lines of Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, as delivered by actor Kevin Conway in a 30-second ESPN spot that played on Lincoln Financial Field’s massive video board before Saturday’s pre-World Cup friendly between Turkey and the United States. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” asserts the screed, published in December 1776. “Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” (ESPN, with respect to our sensitive ears, has taken out the hell part.) Paine’s words are accompanied by Revolutionary War images (the Gadsden Flag, a marching drum corps)—all the better to promote the United States’ World Cup opener against England. Sure, Suck it, Turkey! reeks a bit of misdirected nationalism. But how else are we supposed to practice for the World Cup?

In the second half of Saturday’s tune-up—a 2-1 victory over the Turks—the United States played like a team that didn’t need any more practice, with Landon Donovan zipping through the Turkish defense beautifully in setting up both goals. While Team USA is thin in many areas, Donovan is showing the kind of form the Americans will need from their best player to advance out of group play in South Africa. Goalkeeper Tim Howard (who didn’t have to do much in the way of acrobatics on Saturday save one brilliant second-half save) and goal scorers Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey (who celebrated his game-winning strike with his version of injured striker Charlie Davies’ stanky leg) also look primed to help Donovan’s cause.

None of that is news, of course, even to the guyscreaming, “Suck it, Turkey!” The pessimists, too, can look to an old problem: the national team’s sievelike defense, which broke down repeatedly during the first 45 minutes. In the 27th minute, right back Jonathan Spector was beaten badly by Turkish winger Arda Turan, who finished a blazing run by drilling a shot past Howard. And, as the Turkish owner of a South Jersey diner told me Sunday morning, “We had three more chances in the first half, too.”

Spector wasn’t alone in looking bad. I agree with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, who wrote that, “Defense has to be played by the entire team, and nobody—not Donovan and not [midfielder Ricardo] Clark—did enough to cover the space left open by Spector’s forward run.” If the Americans want to stop England’s lethal attack, they must do a better job of tracking back on defense. Otherwise, the Brits will probably be belting out chants after multiple Wayne Rooney goals. (I like this one the best: “I saw my mate the other day/ He said to me he’d seen the white Pelé/ So I asked who is he?/ He goes by the name of Wayne Rooney/ Wayne Rooney, Wayne Rooney.”)

If you look past the defensive lapses, there werea few positive developments for the United States on Saturday. One was the play of Robbie Findley, viewed by many as a perplexing choice for the World Cup roster. (He didn’t score his first goal of the season for Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake until May 13). Findley, whose perfectly floated pass in the 58th minute allowed Donovan to find Altidore for the tying goal, looked in flashes like the speedy striker the United States has been missing since Davies suffered severe injuries in an October car accident. Midfielder José Torres was also a revelation in the second half, helping the United States keep possession and creating chances for teammates.

Can Findley and Torres perform similar feats in South Africa? I’m not so sure. The fans in Philly, though, didn’t seem to doubt the pair or America’s chances in general. The pre-World Cup mood was mostly sweetness and light; as soon as I pulled my car into the stadium parking lot, I ran into dozens of teenagers kicking around soccer balls. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in Manchester, Rome, or Madrid, where the only thing being kicked before matches are opposing supporters’ teeth.

I was particularly impressed that so many people turned out for a friendly match. (The announced attendance was 55,407, although it seemed a bit lower than that.) I spotted hundreds of new national team jerseys, which were being sold in the Eagles Pro Shop on racks probably vacated by Donovan McNabb merchandise. In addition to people cloaked in a rainbow of European club colors—nothing screams “I am an authentic soccer fan!” like a Barcelona or A.C. Milan kit—the crowd was studded with Dempsey, Donovan, Onyewu, and Bradley shirts.

The crowd’s festive mood, I think, is an indication that expectations are high this summer. Maybe Team USA’s supporters won’t riot after a poor World Cup showing, but you can bet they’ll be disappointed, probably even angry. It wasn’t so long ago that World Cup wins were happy surprises for American fans, whereas losses were expected and taken with a shrug. But this time around, a loss to powerful England would absolutely sting. A win—well, that would be a glorious triumph.

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