When USA take on England today, it will not be the first time Bob Bradley has come face to face with Fabio Capello. "Once when we met I asked him about all the different teams he'd coached and the differences between them," the US coach remarked about a previous encounter with his Three Lions counterpart. "And he just gave a little smile and said, 'When you make wine, the grapes are not always the same'."
If teams are wine and players are grapes, then USA and England are most assuredly a different vintage. With the likes of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney in the team, Capello has at his disposal a host of household names. USA's Everton-based goalkeeper, Tim Howard, even called Rooney the best striker in the world.
Bradley, for his part, has assembled a squad short on worldwide name recognition, but big on heart and grit, qualities that helped them reach the final of last year's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. "The first game with England is obviously huge," said the successor to Bruce Arena, whose men tumbled out at the group stage at Germany 2006.
He can produce some special moments and make plays that can determine the outcome of the game. We are excited to see him in this World Cup at his best.
Bradley, who can cut a stern figure with his close-cropped hair and tightly-set jaw, thinks he has an edge due to the eight players in his squad that play for English Premier League clubs. "We have guys that have been in the Premiership, that have come up against some of the same players that they will meet on Saturday," said the 52-year-old, who is confident his side can reach the Round of 16 from a manageable-looking Group C that also contains Algeria and Slovenia. "I think that can only help us. It gives us confidence that we know what we're up against."
Bradley is not overawed by the calibre of players his charges will meet in Rustenburg, and well he shouldn't be. USA snapped Spain's 35-game unbeaten streak at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup, where they also beat African champions Egypt and led Brazil 2-0 at half-time in the final before collapsing to a 3-2 defeat.
Bradley is even willing to match his stars against anything in Capello's locker room. "I would expect that the big players on both teams look for their moments, and hopefully, with guys like Landon [Donovan] and Clint Dempsey, those moments will come to us first," said the former Chicago Fire and Chivas USA coach, who is expecting a tight start to the game in Rustenburg.
One player that Bradley, formerly a player and coach with top-level college side Princeton University, is hoping will make all the difference is creator Donovan. "Landon is such an important player for us. He has the experience of two previous World Cups," he said of the six-time US player of the year, who plays for Los Angeles Galaxy in Major League Soccer but recently had an impressive loan spell in England with Everton. "He enters this World Cup at the peak both physically and mentally. He can produce some special moments and make plays that can determine the outcome of the game. We are excited to see him in this World Cup at his best."
If sometimes accused of going missing in big games for USA in the past, a more mature Donovan thinks the Americans' flirtations with the big boys last year in South Africa will serve the team well. "We saw that on our day we can beat any team in the world," he told FIFA.com.
Recreating that moment
Injuries have complicated USA's preparations. Forward Charlie Davies impressed in the FIFA Confederations Cup only to be ruled out of South Africa 2010 after being involved in a serious car crash; giant centre-back Oguchi Onyewu has not played a full match for club or country since October; and captain Carlos Bocanegra and striker Jozy Altidore are both struggling with lesser knocks.
"We are in good shape," insisted Bradley, buoyed by the return to fitness of some key players. "We've done a good job throughout our training camp of working hard [and] making sure that we've got the balance right. We will enter the first game physically in very good condition." With the buzz back home at fever pitch, the American coach knows full-well the historical context of the meeting with England. "The history goes back to 1950," said Bradley, referencing the famous 1-0 win for USA over England in Brazil. "We had a great moment against England, but now we have an opportunity on a big stage to show what we're all about."