Soccer  

England full of confidence, US less so ahead of their match

DOHA, Qatar — The United States and England got their World Cup campaigns underway Monday, and did so in decidedly different circumstances. The Three Lions cruised to a comfortable 6-2 win over Iran, in a scoreline that arguably flattered the Iranians, while the Americans conceded a crushing 82nd-minute equalizer in settling for a 1-1 draw vs. Wales.

So, as the pair prepare for Friday’s meeting at Al Bayt Stadium, they do so with strongly contrasting emotions. England’s first game success has the country’s fans signing “It’s Coming Home” already, while the US’s disappointing draw has the American Outlaws fearing a group stage exit.

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But what have the teams taken away from these games, what are the moods in camp and what can we expect from each side Friday? ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle, James Olley, Sam Borden, Tom Hamilton and Kyle Bonagura to weigh in on the US and England ahead of their hotly anticipated matchup.


How do the US keep spirits high ahead of England?

The US oftentimes are at their best when they’re the underdog, and that will be certainly be the case against England. There is little in the way of expectations, so the US have plenty to gain and little to lose. This isn’t a group that will be intimidated by England’s talent, given that the bulk of their starting XI play in one of the top five European leagues. If they can manage to get a result in this game, that will set them up well for the group stage finale against Iran. — Carlisle

It shouldn’t be hard. This is the World Cup and that, on its own, should be enough motivation to get anyone fired up, for any game. That’s especially true for the young United States team with just a single player — DeAndre Yedlin — with World Cup experience prior to this tournament. Except for Christian Pulisic, who played in a Champions League final, this will be without question the most important game of any of their soccer careers (and even with Pulisic, this one might be more meaningful on a personal level). — Bonagura

I think this is one of those situations where the USMNT’s youth is actually an asset. Because they have almost no international pedigree in terms of matches at this level, I’m not sure they’re as wrapped up in the emotional swings when it comes to expectations. Should the US have taken all three points against Wales? For sure. But I’m not certain that giving up an endgame equalizer is going to leave the scars it might on a team that’s more aware of the outside pressure. These players are largely ecstatic to be here and focused on pulling off some big surprises — nothing that happened Monday changes any of that. — Borden

If England could beat Iran with such ease, what else are they capable of?

England clearly possess a number of high-quality attacking players, but there remains uncertainty over whether manager Gareth Southgate can mold them into a fearsome team, given they reached the Euro 2020 final with a cautious, pragmatic style. Monday’s win over Iran was a significant step in the right direction for those wanting to see England play with greater freedom: There were five different scorers and Iran were overwhelmed at times by the Three Lions’ movement in the final third. Whether they can play with such invention as the pressure grows is the big unknown. — Olley

Expectation around England is always sky-high at any tournament, even more so now after their start to this tournament. But Southgate and his players will know this is a seven-step process, and they’ve only overcome the first hurdle. It’s that dire old football maxim of taking each game at a time. It’s only one win, and campaigns can unravel quickly so they won’t get carried away. Topping the group is key, so that’s the first goal. — Hamilton

How prepared are the US to suffer against possession-hungry England?

This will be the first competitive game under Berhalter in which the team will be decisively less talented. It’s an interesting dynamic because it could force some major tactical wrinkles to begin the game. With that said, Berhalter’s experimentation the past two years have been mostly subtle, so a more substantial change against England would require him to unveil something that would have only been worked on in training situations — of which he hasn’t had many opportunities. I expect the US to stick with the usual approach: 4-3-3, play out of the back and hope that their recent track record of poor chance creation changes. — Bonagura

I don’t think there’s any question that they’ll suffer some against England, but I’d also look for them be comfortable pushing forward themselves. This isn’t going to be a 90-minute assault by England, in my opinion — the US have enough weapons to make the counterattack a legitimate concern for the English. The question that will decide the match is just how much the US are able to relieve the pressure on them by countering. If they can’t, it could be a very, very long night. — Borden

I’d say plenty. I think the US have shown during the back half of this cycle that, in competitive matches, they’re willing to be pragmatic when they need to be, and that includes absorbing pressure. Look at the World Cup qualifier against Mexico at the Azteca. El Tri dominated possession (62% to 38%) yet the US still managed to create better opportunities than Mexico did. If the US take a page out of that playbook, they can be successful. — Carlisle

How do England keep from getting ahead of themselves after one game?

With the greatest respect, it was only Iran. England should win that match 99 times out of 100. And they were far better Monday. Southgate’s side have that big tournament experience, and are well versed with the challenges of managing expectation and pressure. Having gone so close in the past, surely this is England’s best chance to go the full distance, based on experience alone. Expect Southgate to keep his players on their toes, and hammer home the need to top the group. Big tournaments are all well and good when momentum is on your side, but one slip or unpredictable result can derail a tournament. — Hamilton

Southgate was quick to point out afterwards that even in a game England dominated, they still conceded twice. England’s defending remains the weakest part of their team, and there were vulnerabilities that better opponents displaying greater attacking intent could readily exploit. Southgate is also very aware of how quickly campaigns can be derailed by an injury or an issue within their camp — he will not allow any complacency to creep in with, what they hope, will be six matches left. — Olley

What tactical tweaks can Berhalter make to kick-start the US attack?

For me, I think there are two clear changes: Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest are both clearly not 90-minute players at this point and, even more, they’re both on yellow cards. With the importance of the Iran match regardless of the result against England, I’d sit both and bring in Brenden Aaronson and Joe Scally. Why risk a suspension for Dest and McKennie in the most critical match? Plus, they could both use the rest. I’d also consider — and this is a little radical — starting Giovanni Reyna on the wing and using Tim Weah as a striker. I know, I know — that’s not where Weah prefers to play, but given his finish in the Wales game, he clearly doesn’t mind running through the middle! — Borden

I think Berhalter needs to find a way to get Aaronson on the field from the start, and that probably means replacing McKennie, who was not great on the ball against Wales and is sitting on a yellow card. Aaronson is an absolute pest defensively, so while the US would miss McKennie’s late runs into the box, they wouldn’t lose much if anything defensively and they’d gain more skill on the ball. Also, it’s time for someone besides Pulisic to be taking set pieces. His delivery has been consistently poor, and the US are squandering scoring opportunities as a result. Oh yeah, let’s get Reyna in the match as well, especially if the US are in need of a goal. — Carlisle

Tyler Adams has been mainly used as a lone defensive midfielder with the two other midfielders playing in more advanced roles. To account for the English’s wealth of attacking talent, it would make sense if Yunus Musah dropped deeper. He would provide additional cover for the back line and is better suited to advance the ball than Adams. If that happens, it would make sense for Aaronson to play higher up — taking into account his skill set and McKennie’s apparent fatigue — and hope that has benefits in all phases of the game. — Bonagura

How will Southgate keep England fresh without halting their momentum?

Southgate has repeatedly talked about the need to utilize his squad and keep his key players sharp throughout the tournament. It will be difficult to change a winning team given how impressive they were Monday, but one or two alterations seem probable: Southgate made two changes in England’s second game at last year’s Euros, swapping out both full-backs. He made one change at the same point in their 2018 World Cup campaign. — Olley

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Gab Marcotti says England can only take positives after an impressive attacking display in their 6-2 win vs. Iran.

Expect England to stick by and large with the same XI for the USMNT, but there may be the odd tweak. If injuries are worse than feared, they could prompt changes. Harry Maguire picked up that bang to the head against Iran, while Harry Kane sustained that knock to the ankle — so if either are a remote doubt, then expect Southgate to rotate a touch. Phil Foden and Jack Grealish are well trusted by Southgate and could get a chance, as the England manager has in previous tournaments made a point of trying to give players match time during the group stages. But he won’t rotate for the sake of rotating — it’ll be balanced against the need to continue this winning run and momentum. — Hamilton

What tactical matchups will each team look to exploit?

I’d say look to get Weah matched up against Luke Shaw. Weah is in excellent form at the moment, and getting him in the open field should pay dividends. Getting Dest more involved is key as well, which would force Raheem Sterling to defend more than he’d like. The US’s best opportunities will likely come in transition, and the Americans need to execute better in those moments if they are to get a result. The opportunities were there against Wales, and the US didn’t take advantage. — Carlisle

Set pieces. England were a constant threat from set pieces in 2018 (nine of their 12 goals came from them) and after a dip in that potency at the Euros, they looked dangerous once again Monday with Maguire at the heart of things. The Manchester United defender hit the crossbar from a Kieran Trippier corner before he later headed down Shaw’s delivery from the opposite side for Bukayo Saka to score the first of his two goals. By contrast, Pulisic’s delivery against Wales was notably poor. — Olley

The aspect that comes to mind for me isn’t quite tactical, per se, but more situational: The US need to be better on set pieces. I’m not totally sure why Pulisic is still taking all the corner kicks and, regardless of who takes them, the Americans need to take advantage of free kicks in dangerous positions. They have plenty of talented dribblers who will draw fouls around the penalty area and, in a tournament like this one, set pieces are the great equalizer. The US need to give themselves a chance for that to happen in their favor. — Borden

When Pulisic came on against Newcastle United for Chelsea, Trippier made his presence felt early on with a crunching tackle. Although Trippier was booked, he contained Pulisic and nullified that threat for the rest of the game. If England repeat that tactic — although Pulisic does play more centrally for the USMNT — then that will go a long way to stopping them. Likewise, if England can squash the American threat up front, then there will be plenty of space for the full-backs to push up and run at the US backline. — Hamilton

Unlike Wales, who were initially intent on sitting deep and playing for a draw, England are going to play. That’s a rarity in an opponent for the US, who routinely struggled to break down low blocks during World Cup qualifying. They rarely got the opportunity to counter with numbers, but this game figures to have some of those moments. We’ll see if they can take advantage. — Bonagura

Predictions

England 2-0: It’s hard to see how the United States’ consistent inability to create good chances will suddenly be rectified against the best team they’ve played in a competitive match with this group of players. — Bonagura

England 3-1: A nervy first 60 minutes for both teams with plenty of frantic midfield battles only for the strength of England’s bench to bring them home. — Hamilton

England 2-1: The US will be competitive in this match, but the Three Lions have too much quality for the Americans to overcome. — Carlisle

England 3-1: The US can cause problems for England’s porous defense, but Southgate’s side should have too much firepower. — Olley

England 2-1: A similar script to the last match as a late goal hurts the USMNT, only this time it’s from Kane and this time it leaves them with zero points instead of one. — Borden