Who'll go farther: U.S. or England?
In their opening World Cup game, the country I live in and adore, America, savored glory. The country of my birth, England, lost. One team was tenacious. The other was sufficiently impressive to avoid being savaged by the English media postgame, which is progress of sorts. One nation beams like Lady Liberty, resplendent with three points. The other limps around like a wounded dog, with none.
Which nation is better positioned to progress to the elimination round?
Yes, I did just write that quasi-treasonous question. Despite John Brooks' dreamed-of-dream-goal that triggered an involuntary insta-love of football. Even Matt Lauer and Tiffani Thiessen have admitted they are suddenly addicted.
Brooks has rightly been enshrined in the "Top Five American Brooks of All Time" (1. Mel; 2. Herb; 3. John; 4. Brooks Brothers; 5. Albert). Yet the fact remains that in football there is the emotional and the rational. And rationally, while the U.S. may already have overachieved at this World Cup (by the measure of already supplying our screens with not just one "SportsCenter" Moment of Perpetually Played Swelling National Pride, but two!) both they and England must charge out onto the field again -- potentially twice more -- before their group fate is sealed.
England bungled in the jungle of Manaus against Italy with the flickering play of Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge giving cause for cautious optimism before the team drowning in their own sweat, shanked corner kicks and a general inability to take the ball off their opponents did them in.
Against dreaded nemesis Ghana the U.S. looked like one of the best teams in the tournament. For the opening 30 seconds. After that, not so much. A "not so much" compounded by the shock of Jozy Altidore's searing injury. Yes, the team displayed an awe-inspiring tenacity, summoning sufficient courage to rebound from Andre Ayew's cruel equalizer.
Yet from a qualitative football perspective, England conjured 18 shots to the eight mustered by the United States; 128 English passes were conjured in the final third, compared to the scrawny 57 completed by Jurgen Klinsmann's men (whose pass-completion rate was a meager 54 percent in the final third).
As the adrenalin of the win in Natal subsides, the U.S. head to Manaus needing a tie against Portugal and a wounded Cristiano Ronaldo. They will travel there on a wave of emotion, knowing that delegated super-fan Joe Biden and the rest of the nation now expect them to do their duty. Fan expectations and the mistaken sense that having already acquired three points they will naturally see more of the ball against Portugal may be their greatest threat. Positive thinkers keep reminding themselves that Michael Bradley, the world's most athletic security blanket, cannot have a second consecutive subpar game. Realists will acknowledge that the 86-degree Fahrenheit heat and 80 percent humidity make the game a wild card.
English coach Roy Hodgson has declared ahead of the game in the distinctively British climes of Sao Paulo that his team will not "put any of our weapons down." Sad news for those who have lost faith in seemingly blunt tool Wayne Rooney. England's sole representative in the Nike ad which has doomed almost all of its stars (Ronaldo, Franck Ribery, Rooney, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andres Iniesta) for a second consecutive World Cup. The befuddled Liverpudlian has as many career World Cup goals as I do at time of typing.
With defensive anchor Diego Lugano ruled out through injury, the Uruguayan defense will not even have the qualities of "old" and "slow" at its disposal. So Hodgson has declared his intention to play the fumbling Rooney up the center. If the Manchester United striker can attack half as well as he can grow odd clumps of neck hair, England should prevail.
Yet if either the U.S. or England can emerge into the elimination round, my money is on Klinsmann's team. Even if Hodgson's squad overcome Uruguay's unbalanced formation, my muscle memory suggests they may be vanquished by the surprise threat of Costa Rica, which will bring their CONCACAF thunder to the final game.
This doubt runs deep, having been forged in 1982 when the England team departed for the World Cup to the sound of their tournament single, optimistically called "This Time We'll Get It Right." A World Cup classic which includes the lyric: "This time, more than any other time, this time/We're going to find a way/Find a way to get away/This time, getting it all together/To win them all."
As an innocent 11 year-old filled with awe, I played the track on repeat with my bedroom record player. The team bounced out in the second group stage without scoring a goal. I have never truly believed again. A lover burned. Even when I see Sterling scurry round the field with menace, that song remains the soundtrack I hear, in a tone sadder than a Leonard Cohen track.