On chemistry

Clint Dempsey scores v. England (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

Chemistry is a nebulous thing in sports. It’s almost mystical, and it’s responsible for both good and bad things. Look to other sports, like basketball, and chemistry between teammates is seen as a vital part of collective success. Often, part of chemistry is one’s willingness to subvert personal goals for those of the team. In soccer, the same concept exists, usually framed with some sort of pithy argument that “the sum of a team’s parts is greater than each individual player.”

On paper, the United States had no business hanging with England in each team’s World Cup opener. The English team is an all-star team while the US had 3 (maybe 4) truly world-class players at the moment. As a result, England was favored. A draw was a good result for the US. To get the formalities out of the way, England captain Steven Gerrard scored at 4 minutes while winger Clint Dempsey responded for the US at 40 minutes (yeah, the goal was lucky but it still counts). Where does chemistry come in?

England looked very much like a team that had been hastily thrown together, like an all-star team. Don Fabio is an excellent manager but he made two crucial mistakes: one was playing Robert Green (Joe Hart would have been my first choice); the second was starting James Milner on the wing. Milner is a hard man central midfielder, but England’s problem is that both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard like to play in the middle. In fact, Gerrard and Lampard are basically the same player. Sadly, not even Don Fabio had the stones to leave one of them out so Milner played on the wing when he should have been filling the Owen Hargreaves role as a central, defensive-minded midfielder.

But that’s neither here nor there. The real problem was one of communication and, indeed, teamwork. England is composed of excellent players but they don’t know how to play together. To a degree, England suffers from the same disease as Mexico: it assumes a haughty air in competition as if other teams should wilt in their presence. That is, in a word, idiotic. Yes, England invented the game but that doesn’t mean they get a pass every time they play; they have to earn the win. In this case, England was like Mexico in another regard: it didn’t respect the US ability.

Everyone knows about Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have tremendous potential and are just now tapping into it. The other players are good to very good or, like Altidore, long on potential but short on experience. But they’ve been playing together for three years. That has to have some benefit, even if you don’t give chemistry and almost mystical meaning. Chemistry gives players the guts to play long balls or to give-and-go with anyone on the team. Chemistry integrates the new players, like Edson Buddle and Robbie Findlay, easily. The England squad has cliques and the permanently frosty Gerrard/Lampard relationship. That has to influence how a team plays. Logic says so; if you don’t want to play with someone, you’re not going to make the effort to ensure maximum effort at all times.

England is a good, bordering on great, team. It falls on Don Fabio to put everything together. He can’t panic. He can’t listen to the tabloids. What he needs to do is be the calming influence and decide on a squad, and stick with it. Bob Bradley does that and it’s working.

Or maybe the US just really, really likes playing in South Africa.

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