By Alun Thomas
The United States and England rarely play each other in the football world, and their friendly match on May the 28th at Soldier Field was their first match since 1994 and their first on US soil since the American's stunned Graham Taylor's no hopers 2-0 back in 1993 in Boston. Such is the infrequency of this match that I was compelled to attend, the first time I had watched a professional match of any kind in person, despite twenty five years of ardent and sometimes fanatical support of the worlds greatest game. The game was the first of two games England were playing on US grounds, the other against Colombia in New York. The tour, taking place after the conclusion of the English season has been heavily derided back in England, with most of England's stars opting out, leaving second stringers and a few fresh faces to take their places.
The abscence of the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard etc had little bearing on any of the forty seven thousand who turned out for the game. The promise of seeing the red, white and blue of the good old USA upstaging the originators of the game again was the key to the match, despite the friendly status. Having said that half the crowd was comprised of English supporters, many having made the short trip over the Atlantic, giving the game an English league atmosphere, their chanting drowning out the mostly placid US fans who some still refer to a goal as a 'tally'. However the large crowd was proof of soccers enduring popularity in this nation, regardless of the scorn it continues to endure in the mainstream sports media.
Even I must hand it to the US, who have made huge strides as a footballing power. the first time I saw them was in the 1990 World Cup in Italy when they were routed 5-1 by Czechoslavakia in Florence, the side resembling schoolboys. The side improved gradually over the decade, but their woeful showing at France 1998, losing every game, set them back years. Bruce Arena took the coaching position after that debacle and somehow took the side to the Quarter Finals of Japan/South Korea 2002. The side is no longer a pushover and able to compete against the world's best on any given day. Still give me that 1990 team anyday.
England would be a stiff test then, and with crucial world cup qualifiers coming up the US fielded a few new faces as well as veterans like Brain McBride, Eddie Pope, Kasey Keller and 23 year old Landon Donovan. English fans were out in force in the parking lots, proudly sporting their colours, singing some old crap about the barmy amry, who I thought were their cricket team. The atmosphere was largely jovial, even though it was near freezing on the lake. Soldier Field looks smaller in person than it does while watching the Bears capitulate every week, the view excellent from any seat.
The ground resembled an English stadium, with banners hung in every space, reading messages like 'Reg and Bert/ Coventry Passion' and 'Toxteth Army Bulldogs', not to mention 'Harridge 3:16/ St Peters'. The game started in positive fashion for England as Kieron Richardson of West Brom scored in the fourth minute on his debut, bending a direct free kick past US keeper Keller. The US wasted some good chances, with Donovan hitting the post, before missing a near sitter later in the half. A fat fart near me in a Barcelona shirt screamed 'he doesn't know how to kick a ball!' Let's see you do better I thought. The game meanwhile slipped out of US reach when Richardson scored again near half time, set up by Joe Cole, who put him in space, leading to an easy finish.
The US dominated the second half and deservedly pulled a goal back through Clint Dempsey in the 79th minute, heading past English keeper David James who could only push away Carlos Bocanegra's first time shot following a free kick, the rebound falling to Dempsey, scoring his first international goal also. It gave the crowd hope but England won 2-1, and in all fairness were cruising. The US wasted a host of chances, their last touch letting them down after good buildup. England were more steady on the ball and a yard quicker as you would expect. Watching the game in person, one has to appreciate how fast a player has to think, as a man will shut you down in an instant. The US were far from overwhelmed and should they meet England in the future might push them harder, unless England's absent stars are a step above what they faced in Chicago.
I could always live without the ignorance of the people around me, asking how many points a goal is worth, or getting up from their seats every other minute, but personally this was living proof of why soccer holds more passion and power than any sport. It exists even in the USA, where most sport hacks would like you not to believe that. In that regard Jim Rome can be beaten by an angry mob of football hooligans in 1982 Europe. They'll never understand and who cares. Next time I'll remember not to wear a Tottenham shirt in public though. Being stared and laughed at I can live without. Especially one reading 'Samways' across the back.