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June 14, 2010

What we learned from England-USA

Carlisle By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com
(Archive)

PRETORIA, South Africa -- With its 1-1 tie against England now in the books, the U.S. men's national team cleared a giant hurdle in its quest to reach the second round. Simply put, the point the Americans gained against England is a feat unlikely to be matched by Slovenia and Algeria.

Plenty of work remains to be done, though, especially with Slovenia seizing early control of Group C with its 1-0 win over Algeria on Sunday. With that in mind, here are a few things that were learned from Saturday's result:

1. Resilience trumps slow starts -- for now

Gritty, gutsy, brave, whatever your preferred adjective might be, the Americans showed it in abundance on Saturday. The defensive effort teamwide was outstanding, and the self-belief the U.S. showed after going down a goal revealed a mental toughness that the team didn't have four years ago.

But although the Americans are being rightly praised for these traits, the team's habit of conceding early goals remains a huge concern. In the last round of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. conceded the first goal six times in 10 matches. On four of those occasions, the Americans' goal was breached inside of 20 minutes. On Saturday, England needed just four minutes to break on top. Playing this version of Russian roulette is bound to catch up with the U.S. eventually, especially because the team can't count on gifts like the one England goalkeeper Robert Green bestowed on it Saturday.

2. Onyewu took a giant leap forward

This is not say Oguchi Onyewu played a perfect game. His positioning was at times suspect, especially in the buildup to England's goal when his decision to step toward England forward Wayne Rooney created space behind for Steven Gerrard to exploit. But compared with the rather suspect performances Onyewu delivered before the World Cup, he significantly raised his game Saturday, easing concerns about his fitness and sharpness.

Of course, the trick is to deliver such a performance again. When a player is coming off a serious injury like patellar tendon surgery, consistency is the last part of his game to come back. Onyewu will need to reprise his tough tackling and aerial dominance as well as sharpen his positional play if the U.S. is to prevail Friday against Slovenia.

3. Bradley's game plan on Rooney worked to perfection

U.S. manager Bob Bradley is often criticized for his lack of tactical nous, but in terms of his game plan to stop England forward Wayne Rooney, try these numbers on for size. Rooney's first touch came in the 17th minute. He didn't get a touch inside the U.S. penalty area until the 70th minute. Given Rooney's importance to the England team, it's clear that the U.S. had done its homework when it came to the striker's tendencies.

Rooney makes his living dropping deep into midfield to receive the ball, allowing him the room to distribute the ball to the wings and then make powerful runs into the box. Not only did Onyewu and Jay DeMerit limit Rooney's space when operating close to goal, but Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark -- the latter of whom recovered decently from his early failure to mark Gerrard -- were constantly aware of the English forward's whereabouts. Credit Bradley for coming up with an effective strategy to limit Rooney's effectiveness.

4. Possession still an issue

As good as the defensive effort was, the U.S. could have made life considerably easier for itself if it had just managed to hang on to the ball a bit more. And although Bradley hinted during Sunday's news conference that there would be some changes to the team that faces Slovenia, this might be the time to introduce Jose Francisco Torres into the center of midfield.

Given the physicality that England brings, Saturday's match was always going to be one that required Clark's range and tenacity as opposed to Torres' clever passing. But given the cagier tactical approach offered up by Slovenia, Torres' skill set -- which includes a much greater attention to his defensive duties as well as more composure on the ball -- makes him a better fit than Clark in the center of midfield.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.