When the U.S. men's national team squares off against England on Wednesday, it will mark the beginning of perhaps the most daunting stretch of friendly games the U.S. has ever undertaken. A matchup against host Spain in Santander will follow on June 4, with a home match against Argentina finishing off the run on June 8; all so the Americans can be in peak form for their World Cup qualifying series against Barbados one week later.
It all starts against an English team still smarting from its failure to qualify for this summer's European championships. Yet the imperious presence of new coach Fabio Capello now dominates the English footballing landscape, and after suffering his first defeat in March against France, he'll be eager to get his charges back on track against the Americans.
Five story lines to follow
1. Landon Donovan's century of caps
Two months after club teammate David Beckham won his 100th cap for England, Donovan is poised to do the same for the United States, becoming the 11th American to do so. But while Beckham is closing in on the end of his international career, Donovan, at age 26, is still going strong.
"I'm happy at the longevity of it, because it means that the coaches want you in a lot, if not all the time," Donovan said of the milestone. "That's what I'm proud of."
2. Capello makes his mark
The end of May is usually the time when English players put their collective feet up after a grueling season. But given the scant amount of time Capello has had with the English side, he's using this time to hold an 11-day training camp that The Independent described as "longest-ever postseason training camp in recent memory." It's expected that by the time the camp ends, Capello will have settled on his captain, as well as those who will make up the backbone of the side that will begin World Cup qualifying in September.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. England
Wembley Stadium, London
3 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic
U.S. vs. Spain
U.S. vs. Argentina
3. Going to Wembley
Wednesday's match represents a rare opportunity for the U.S. to play in one of the cathedrals of the sport. The team's only previous Wembley encounter came just after the 1994 World Cup, when two Alan Shearer goals condemned the Americans to a 2-0 defeat. But Donovan and his teammates are eager to show the amount of progress the U.S. has made since then.
"It's going to be special," Donovan said of his first Wembley appearance. "I'm playing in the place where I guess most people consider soccer to have started, and to play in their national stadium is going to be awesome. But we're not going to the game to go out and warm up, look around the stadium, and say, 'Isn't this great?' We're going there to get a result out of the game."
4. The Americans' newfound road strength
Part of Donovan's confidence stems from the team's recent success on the road. When the U.S. defeated Poland 3-0 in March, it marked the team's third consecutive away victory, the first time in its history that such a streak had been achieved. For midfielder Ricardo Clark, the Americans' success can be traced to the discipline instilled by Bradley.
"[Bradley] designs the system that we play to be tough for teams to play through the middle," Clark said. "He instills that mentality that you never give up in the midfield and you fight after every loose ball, and make it hard for teams to play against us. I think that's been a big part of our success so far."
5. England's loaded roster
Capello's pool of 31 players includes eight performers who took part in Wednesday's UEFA Champions League final. But even if those players don't take the field, England is still capable of fielding a team with plenty of talent. Donovan is under no illusions as to the magnitude of the challenge.
"If you can't match [England's] energy, you have no chance in the game," Donovan said. "Then you calculate the quality of their players, and that makes it another level, and then you also calculate that those players, if not all, play in what I consider to be the best league in the world. So they've got a lot of factors going for them. That being said, there are still a lot of players that played for Poland and Switzerland who play in good teams and are talented and if we approach it the same way, we think we can win."
Five players to watch
1. Steven Gerrard, M, England
With his club side, Liverpool, unencumbered by Champions League obligations, Gerrard is one of those players who has been able to get a bit of rest. That should come in handy on Wednesday, with his two-way game and ability to get forward a major worry for the Americans.
"I like the way [Gerrard] plays both sides of the ball," Clark said. "His engine, his desire to win every ball and be a part of every play, that's what puts him over the top."
2. Carlos Bocanegra, D, U.S.
The part-time U.S. captain was just released by EPL side Fulham, and while his four and a half years in London have made Bocanegra a known commodity in Europe, a solid performance against England will only increase his chances of finding a new club. The Americans' prowess on set pieces is a major part of the U.S. attack, and as his goal against Poland showed, Bocanegra is a big contributor in this area.
3. John Terry, D, England
There isn't a distillery big enough to wash away Terry's Champions League nightmare. The Chelsea captain missed a potential game-winning attempt in the penalty shootout, opening the door for Manchester United to claim Europe's biggest prize. While there's a temptation to think Terry needs some rest after such a trauma, the English captaincy is still up for grabs, increasing the likelihood the defender will see the field.
4. DaMarcus Beasley, M, U.S.
The Rangers midfielder sustained a major knee injury during a Champions League game in November, but Beasley managed to recover in time to score in the Glasgow club's 3-2 Scottish Cup final victory over Queen of the South on May 17. The Americans have found the left midfield spot difficult to fill in his absence, and given the pace and stellar defensive work Beasley provides, the U.S. side will be eager to see him back in the lineup.
5. David Bentley, M, England
While most American eyes will be on Beckham, Bentley is his heir apparent on the right side of the midfield, with his crossing ability and nose for the goal making him an early favorite of Capello's. Bentley created a stir last summer when he refused to participate in the European U-21 Championships, citing fatigue. But his exploits at the club level with Blackburn Rovers have seen him get back into the national team frame.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.