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Keys to U.S. victory (and vice versa)

June 12, 2010
Ubha By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com
(Archive)

England and the U.S. have at least one thing in common heading into the World Cup -- fans in both countries hold heightened expectations.

England, seeking to end an agonizing 44-year drought, raised its level under hardened Italian boss Fabio Capello. In late May, all-world forward Lionel Messi included the Three Lions in his trio of favorites.

The U.S., meanwhile, stunned European champ Spain in last year's Confederations Cup, before bravely succumbing to Brazil. Getting out of Group C is a minimum.

Much, then, is at stake when the two nations go head-to-head to begin their South African odyssey June 12. Besides the obvious (as in, scoring more goals than the other), here's some of what each team needs to do to win.

U.S.

1. Hope the defense excels

England figures to go forward in waves, with Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch leading the charge up front. So, the central defenders have to be up to the task.

Is that realistic without world-class Oguchi Onyewu? He's logged in some time during the pre-tournament friendlies, but his fitness is still suspect.

Jay DeMerit didn't finish the season fit with Watford, and he alternated between central and fullback at Vicarage Road. DeMerit struggled heavily against Australia in the 3-1 friendly win last week, bailed out by Marcus Hahnemann. Clarence Goodson excelled alongside DeMerit against the Socceroos, although England is no Australia.

And, of course, Tim Howard has to be focused. He'll be busy and butting heads with Crouch on free kicks and corners more than once.

2. Neutralize Lennon

Aaron Lennon is Theo Walcott, though much more developed. A healthy Lennon terrorized defenses this season and started for England on the right side of midfield. He's back from injury and will be bombing down the wing, ensuring a nervy afternoon for the U.S. left back, be it Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector or much-maligned Jonathan Bornstein.

When Tottenham beat West Ham 2-1 at Upton Park in August, Spector's slip allowed Lennon to net the winner. Whoever starts, they'll need plenty of help from the left-sided midfielder.

3. Get a big performance from Altidore

A goal or two from Jozy Altidore -- assuming he overcomes his ankle injury -- is a bonus. After all, he had a difficult time finding the net (and keeping time) at his club, the now-relegated Hull. His job, rather, is to wreak havoc in the England box by bullying the center backs.

On the surface, that seems like a tall order. But consider this: England is without captain Rio Ferdinand, and his replacement, Ledley King, looked shaky defensively against Mexico in a pre-tournament tuneup. John Terry remained his inspirational self at Chelsea, but his leadership abilities probably outweighed his performance on the pitch. Terry, never the most graceful or fastest defender, has lost a step.

Altidore will look to win the first ball in the air and hope teammates Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, among others, pick up the scraps. The U.S. should target Glen Johnson. Brilliant offensively, the right back is a liability on defense.

England

1. Don't get complacent

The bookies usually list England as the 4/9 favorite, there or thereabouts. Will a few players take their foot off the gas, expecting to cruise against a nation that historically hasn't done much at the Cup?

Probably not.

First, Capello won't allow it. Second, the U.S.'s performance in South Africa last summer raised eyebrows, upping the respect level. Third, England's squad knows the danger posed by Donovan and Dempsey, since they tangled with the duo in the Premier League last season.

2. Beware of the counter

The first group games can be cagey as neither team wants to lose, which is the worst case scenario. However, in this game England is certainly gunning for all three points. Anything less will be considered a failure back home.

While Rooney, Crouch, Frank Lampard, Lennon and Steven Gerrard press, England can't over commit. Doing so would leave the door open for Donovan and team to hit them on the break, a tactic that proved so effective for the U.S. at the Confederations Cup.

That's where England's holding midfielder, Gareth Barry or other, comes in.

If the U.S. scores the first goal, look out. There could be more.

If England scores the first goal, it spells big trouble for the U.S.

3. Avoid the howler

David James is expected to get the nod ahead of Joe Hart and Robert Green as England's No. 1 goalkeeper. Despite the fact that he's made fewer blunders as he's gotten older, "Calamity James" can surface at any minute. James is far more likely than Howard to let a long-range effort go through his legs, flap at a cross or produce a poor clearance. Should James keep a clean sheet, England's chances get even better.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.