U.S. is no match for England

Special to The Times

LONDON -- Credible but pretty much toothless, the United States men's soccer team did play a role Wednesday night in the humongous Wembley theater.

It served as a backdrop, as scenery for another England national team saga.

Fortunately for the majority English among the 71,223 in attendance, this particular saga involved David Beckham, John Terry, a whole heap of fine sentiment and a 2-0 England win, as opposed to the usual English accompaniments of muddled offense and angst.

"It was good for everyone except probably 30 or so of us," said Landon Donovan, the American and Galaxy employee who missed snaring his 100th U.S. cap because of a groin injury.

Not that England dredged any tears from a friendly or anything, but a rather poignant free kick did come from the man many came to applaud, Beckham, on his first England match since earning his 100th England cap in March in Paris.

About 38 minutes after English soccer royalty Sir Bobby Charlton presented Beckham with a golden cap in a glass case (for his 100th cap) so hefty that Beckham later joked he couldn't lift it over his head, Beckham sent a typically adroit curler into the wall in front of the American goal. "That's obviously my job," said the dead-ball maestro.

Once Beckham's cross found an unmarked Terry, who poked his way into the wall and used the left edge of his skull to direct it skipping to the left of U.S. goalie Tim Howard and into the net. That pleased the patrons because only seven nights prior, the Chelsea mainstay Terry missed a penalty kick in Moscow that would've won the European Champions League, possibly spiraling him into a lifetime of REM nightmares.

Having found some salve, Terry ran pretty madly toward Beckham and gave him a long, tight hug, of which Beckham said, "You could see the emotion in him, in his eyes once he scored that goal. There was a slight relief for him."

While England had a fine little night rife with roster tinkering from first-year Italian manager Fabio Capello and outright dazzles from stars Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, the Americans threatened only mildly, usually from Eddie Johnson on the right. In Donovan's opinion, they regressed from their heady 3-0 win over Poland in March as they lifted the lid on three straight matches against hard, fast, high-brow soccer countries, with Spain and Argentina to follow.

Said Michael Bradley, the 20-year-old U.S. midfielder playing in Holland and attracting English Premier League attention, "I thought the first, whatever, 30, 35 minutes, it wasn't that we were great but still the game was played on fairly even terms. But like I say, for us, we need more of these games, more of these fast, hard games."

"We're not used to them by any stretch," Howard said, "but we're getting there."

A taste of the harrowing sights of Rooney and Gerrard and the constant threat Jermaine Defoe then came at decorated Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan, 23, when he spelled Howard to start the second half. Twice Guzan saved Defoe bids, but almost nobody on earth could've saved against Gerrard in the 59th minute, loose and alone and entering the right side of the box behind two defenders to find substitute Gareth Barry's through pass and coolly slip it by Guzan's right into the corner.

The crowd, well shy of the capacity 90,000 with the upper deck pretty vacant all around, went festive from there, a marked departure from the gloom of last November at Wembley, when England committed an abject national tragedy and failed to qualify for the Euro 2008 colossus that starts next month.

"I thought it was important that we perform well and win the game, and we did both," Beckham said.

After the U.S. team's first game in the North London cathedral since 1994 ended, another member of the Galaxy, Donovan, told of sitting with U.S. Manager Bob Bradley on Wednesday morning and deciding not to risk playing his 100th cap. "The reality is that you've got to think big-picture, and while this is a fun game and probably a special game, it didn't make a lot of sense to get hurt," Donovan said.

And on the other side, things were light enough after Beckham's 101st England cap that English reporters could note to Beckham the rarity that they'd actually watched something from the MLS: Beckham's 70-yard goal last week against Kansas City.

They asked him to compare it to other goals like the long-long ball from the other half of the pitch for Manchester United against Wimbledon in 1996, and as he walked off and back toward America, he said, "Definitely ranks up there high, and there's been five million hits on YouTube."

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