LONDON – The United States' 2-0 defeat to England on Wednesday had more to do with being outplayed rather than being overawed. Still, there is an inferiority complex within the American camp that needs to be fixed.
Before Bob Bradley's side can hope to be competitive against some of the top teams in world soccer, it must start believing that it can perform at the highest level.
All the confidence in the world would not necessarily have reversed the result at Wembley Stadium. But it was clear that the surroundings of one of the sport's most iconic venues restricted the visitors' freedom of expression and thought.
"We were on the back foot all night," goalkeeper Tim Howard admitted. "I don't know if it is a confidence thing against big teams. We are certainly not used to it, but we are getting there and it will help in the long run.
"We will either grow from it or we will keep getting tough lessons."
The one handed out by England was not too painful. Under new manager Fabio Capello, the hosts were clinical and efficient and the U.S. was not disgraced. But once the first goal went in via John Terry's head, there wasn't any real likelihood of a comeback.
Even so, from its trio of high-profile friendlies arranged over a week and a half – with a visit to Spain and a home clash with Argentina to follow – the U.S. needs something to show for it. That will only happen if Bradley's men are able to keep their cool and play their natural game even against some of the biggest superstars in the game.
The Americans did not freeze completely in the Wembley spotlight, but it may take some time and more exposure before they feel comfortable in such storied surroundings. U.S. Soccer must be praised for taking the irregular yet forward-thinking step of preparing for World Cup qualifiers by meeting three powerful and historic opponents.
"We need more games like this," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "We play too many games against bad teams in our region and unfortunately that is just the way it is. When we have the chance to play good teams in Europe, we have to take advantage of that."
Without Landon Donovan, who missed out on the chance to make his 100th international appearance due to a groin strain, the U.S. presented very little of a genuine attacking threat. Bradley did not deliberately set out to be negative, but the swarming England midfield prevented his son Michael and Ricardo Clark from generating anything dangerous from the center of the field.
The slick, one-touch passing of England, as perfectly illustrated by the second goal from Steven Gerrard, was tough for the Americans to deal with. The slightly slower pace employed by Spain and Argentina may be better suited to the U.S.'s method of play.
"It is a different style over here," Clark said. "We want to get a taste of each style and every level of competition.
"We want to prove we can play at that level and the only way is to meet these teams. We want to get big results against both Spain and Argentina and that is a realistic goal if we stick to our game plan and play right."
Although games against leading opposition are important, they will not shape the U.S. men's reputation with the public. Judgment Day comes in two years at the World Cup in South Africa. Until then, more lessons are to be learned, more experience is to be gained. And, hopefully for Bob Bradley and his players, a sense of belonging is to be earned.
- Bob Bradley