Live on ABC at 2:30 ET
Johnson King Terry ACole
Lennon Lampard Gerrard JCole
Cherundolo Onyewu DeMerit Bocanegra
Dempsey Bradley Clark Donovan
• 4-4-2 with Barry out, which is what we've seen in the friendlies, or Gerrard back in a free role behind Rooney?
• Can Lampard and Gerrard play together?
• Who starts in goal?
• Who partners Altidore?
• How healthy is Gooch?
• Can the fullbacks keep up?
It's the match I'm dying to see and yet fairly unhappy about. The country I root for versus the country of my birth. And it'll take place on day two of the tournament. I guess it's always better to jump in feet first...
Most importantly, both teams are better than the sides sent to Germany four years ago.
The difference in England comes down to two factors: Fabio Capello and Rooney's development. Otherwise, it's basically the 2006 team but four years older. Which is evident from the key questions above. We're still debating whether or not Lampard and Gerrard can play together in central midfield, we're still wondering if David James is really England's best goalkeeper, and England's still reliant on Wayne Rooney.
Tactically, the main debate is Heskey v Crouch v Gerrard in a free role. Barry's absence, from this game at the least, means Gerrard will almost assuredly play as a holding midfielder – albeit one that bombs forward at opportune moments. Neither Carrick nor Milner made the most of chances given during the past month. And that means that Rooney will play with another striker up top. We can rule out a little-little partnership with Defoe, but whether Heskey or Crouch gets the nod still seems up in the air.
Heskey's been preferred in the past; as with Owen, managers love how he creates space and draws defenders to the benefit of his strike partner. But he's been unable to buy a goal for club or country, while Crouch has an excellent scoring record for England (21 in 39), even if most have come against the minnows. My guess is Capello goes with the devil he knows best, and we got a hint with seeing Rooney and Heskey paired in the second half on Monday, but I say that with little certainty. No matter which starts, either will be crucial with crosses coming in from the flanks and Oneywu suspect after an extended injury, and that would lead me to pick Crouch.
Meanwhile, the US has continually improved since 2006, something Bob Bradley doesn't get nearly enough credit for. Beating Spain in last summer's Confederations Cup was the high-water mark, but recent low-water marks include eking through World Cup qualification and the earlier rounds of the Confed Cup. And the hero of qualification, Conor Casey – with his two goals against Honduras – didn't even make the squad. But there was no surprise in that.
Despite form, World Cup qualification – like the win over Spain – still demonstrated the US' best attribute. They win games by outworking opponents. The 'never say die' attitude is cliché, especially in reference to an American team, but it's true. And there are assuredly worse qualities to have. Yet England are routinely renowned for the same quality – tactically questionable on the big stage but full of blood and guts.
As go Dempsey and Donovan, so goes America. The US needs both on their game – as they were against Spain a year ago – to succeed. Shocking, right? The team plays well when the two best players play well. But Deuce and Landycakes are head and shoulders above others in the squad. Dempsey's become a big player in the Premiership, which is of no small importance here, while you can be certain that Donovan's loan to Everton took place with this match in mind. Deuce, Howard, DeMerit, Spector, Guzan, Hahnemann and Holden ply their trade in England; Altidore and Donovan spent at least part of last season there on loan; Gooch, Boca, and Feilhaber have played there in the past; and Beasley and Edu are currently in Scotland. Check my math, but I'm pretty sure that's more than half of the squad. It might help.
At the same time, all eyes are on the US' defense. The possibility of Spector and Bornstein at fullback should strike fear into the hearts of any American, especially with the likes of Joe Cole, Aaron Lennon, Ashley Cole, and Glen Johnson on England's flanks. I'd wager any amount of money that's the main point of attack, and we'll see how the Americans cope, especially with Oneywu still recovering from that knee injury. He played sparingly during the friendlies, but if he's anywhere near fit, he'll start, consequences be damned. And it's hard to argue with that decision.
It's also hard to put much stock in friendly results, but there were signs of optimism from both sides. Three wins from three for England, although Mexico and Japan gave them problems and the Platinum Stars barely counted. Meanwhile, although the Czechs walloped the Americans, the USA came back strong against Turkey and Australia. Still, the rickety defense worried, especially conceding silly set piece goals against both the Czechs and Aussies, while Turan torched the US on one break where Spector was caught upfield. Worth noting given England's strength on free kicks and corners (scoring twice against Mexico) and its pace on the flanks.
These two teams are predicted to qualify from the group and rightfully so. But the US has never advanced after losing its first match. England's done it twice – 1962 and 1986. Make no mistake, this will have crucial implications for who progresses and both teams know it. Which leads me to believe the US will set up for and be satisfied with a draw. It'll be up to England to prove why they should be amongst the favorites.