Everyone remembers the front page.
“Phew! World Cup draw relief” exclaimed The Sun, over an acrostic with the Group C teams of the 2010 World Cup laid out to spell “EASY” (“Y” for “Yanks”!). The back page called it the “Best English group since the Beatles.” It wasn’t the only paper rejoicing. Both the English tabloid press and their more staid counterparts passed the verdict that the Three Lions were lucky to get a “Dream Draw,” as the Daily Mail put it, while The Guardian called it the “Group of Life.”
Social media was already on the rise then, but Stuart Holden didn’t need to log on to see the headlines. The former United States midfielder was playing with Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League, one of eight England-based players who would make the 2010 World Cup roster.
“Those were all kind of circulated amongst the team,” Holden told ESPN from Qatar, where he’ll be broadcasting Friday’s group match between the US and England. “Different guys talked about it in the group, and I think it was something [manager] Bob Bradley and the group leaned in. That, ‘Look, this is how they perceive you. It’s up to you to prove that wrong.'”
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The England-based US players knew better than to conflate what English journalists were saying with what the actual England team thought about their counterparts.
“I don’t think it reflected the feeling within the English players. I think there was probably a bit of a skewed judgment from the English press,” said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who played for Aston Villa at the time. “There was banter. There were little jokes here and there, but I think deep down they knew that, listen, it’s the World Cup. There are no easy games.”
Still, if England did have confidence in their storied past and the pleasant present, it was well founded. Fabio Capello’s squad was stacked with some of the game’s biggest stars at the height of their powers. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard were in the midfield, with a 24-year-old Wayne Rooney in front of them. John Terry anchored the back line, and even some of the fringe players on the roster (a 24-year-old James Milner had just eight caps when he made the roster) are now household names.
“The pressure was big. [Rooney] had an incredible season that year with Manchester United. He was Premier League Player of the Year — arguably the best player in the world, so I had a very big preparation to understand everything I could about Wayne Rooney,” said center-back Jay DeMerit, who was based at Watford. “That’s what I was thinking: How can I affect this game? How can I take the best player in the world out of this game to give myself and my team a better chance? I remember from the prep of the game, that’s what I was truly focused on.”
DeMerit got a boost thanks to his intimate knowledge of how the opposition liked to play at the club level. While it wasn’t exactly hard to find tape of Rooney, Gerrard and co, the US were able to take a bit of an inside edge into a game with an England squad that was entirely based in the Premier League.
“I think some of the different nuances, intricacies from our experience playing against them, that’s a more intimate knowledge of those players, so we certainly shared that with our teammates,” said Jonathan Spector, who was playing at West Ham United, where he was teammates with England goalkeeper Rob Green and defender Matthew Upson, and knew other players from his time in the Manchester United academy.
Holden felt “less daunted by the fact of playing England. I didn’t feel there was going to be a surprise on the field. I had played against Rooney and Gerrard and Lampard and [Peter] Crouch and all these guys, so it wasn’t this shock factor.”
And the United States weren’t bad either. Most of the players in the Premier League were getting regular minutes, while Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and DeMarcus Beasley were among a group excelling at the club level outside England.
Bob Bradley had engineered a run to the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, during which the US ended Spain’s unbeaten run at 35 matches and took a 2-0 lead into halftime of the final against Brazil before falling, 3-2. That gave the squad what DeMerit called a “deserved confidence” at a higher level than previous US teams going into the World Cup.
The confidence could’ve wavered pretty quickly once the ball started rolling at the World Cup, as DeMerit’s center-back partner Oguchi Onyewu got sucked in trying to keep Rooney from making a move in the third minute. Rooney instead found Emile Heskey, who played a quick pass for Gerrard, who scored the early goal. But the US found an equalizer in the 39th minute when Clint Dempsey tried his luck from distance and Green’s infamous bobble allowed the ball to scoot over the line.
“It was a big moment for me,” Dempsey said on a Paramount+ broadcast this year. “When you’re a kid, that’s the biggest stage. It’s what I dreamed about, trying to be in the World Cup and to be there, playing against England, the country I was playing in as well, it was just a special moment .”
The US may have been the better team in the second half as well, with Green redeeming himself with a critical save on Jozy Altidore. In addition to Spector being Green’s club teammate, DeMerit shared agents with Green and was friendly with the goalkeeper as well. Guzan felt for his fellow shot stopper but said last week, “It didn’t matter for us how the ball went in the back of the net. I remember there was just a new sense of belief, positivity among the group,” even after the final whistle blew on the 1-1 draw.
The US ended up drawing with Slovenia and finished atop the group after Donovan’s dramatic late goal against Algeria. Both teams went out at the round of 16, with the US falling to Ghana in extra time and eventual third-place team Germany rolling past England, 4-1.
“It was obviously a fantastic start to the tournament for us, and we went on to win that group and have that feather in our cap when we went back to our clubs after the tournament,” Guzan said. “To be able to have those bragging rights and whatnot, it felt pretty nice.”
Others believe the effect of that game goes further, marking a solidification of the American player as one good enough to go toe-to-toe with top Premier League players, whether at the club level or internationally.
“I think we felt — and I think this is going to be the case for the upcoming game — those are the games where really you get kind of the barometer of just how good you are, the measuring stick, and when you test yourself against the best how do you stack up in actual World Cup matches. Not a friendly. There’s no excuses,” Holden said.
The players who were part of that 2010 US squad that used disrespect to fuel them to a result against England think the 2022 players should take a different lesson from that game 12 years ago into Friday’s clash: belief. “That spirit was the biggest thing that came through from that team, and what I hope to see from this young group is to really come together and believe,” Holden said.
Friday’s game no doubt will be a lot of things and provoke a lot of emotions, but no one is expecting it to be EASY.