For the U.S. coaching staff the process of scouting its first-round World Cup opponents—England, Slovenia and Algeria—is like something out of a John le Carré novel, with agents dispatched to far-flung places, round-the-clock surveillance and intelligence gleaned by elaborate means. The players on those Group C teams are spread among dozens of clubs all over Europe, often cast in different roles than when they're with their national teams. "Among everyone on our staff we've seen the main 12 or 13 players from England, Algeria and Slovenia play live at least once," says U.S. assistant coach Jesse Marsch. "And we've watched them on TV a ton, too."
From U.S. headquarters in Carson, Calif., coaches have kept electronic tabs on the enemy since December's World Cup draw. Videos of England games are easy to come by, and the staff has assembled a DVD library on Slovenia with the help of U.S. assistant Lubos Kubik, whose native Czech Republic faced Slovenia in World Cup qualifying, and on Algeria through U.S. goalkeepers coach Zak Abdel, whose native Egypt played Algeria in qualifying. "We've compiled a lot of information, and we have clips on everybody," says U.S. assistant Mike Sorber. "And if any new guys come into those teams, we'll have scouts at those games also." The staff has also put together dossiers on possible second-round opponents Germany, Serbia, Ghana and Australia.
Through Internet live streams and satellite TV, U.S. staffers have watched hundreds of matches featuring World Cup opponents as well as kept an eye on their own players. Marsch says he's seen 20 to 30 games a week since the draw and that coach Bob Bradley has screened about 50 a week. "On any given day we'll watch three or four games in the office," says Marsch. "Then I'll speak to Bob the next day, and he'll mention things that happened in two or three games from the night before. This isn't just his job. It's his life."
Yet soccer reveals much more—about speed, positioning, movement off the ball—when watched live, and the U.S. coaches have flown thousands of miles to scout players firsthand. Kubik has made trips from his base near Prague, while the other U.S. coaches cloak-and-daggered their way through Europe for much of March. Around the U.S.-Netherlands friendly on March 3, for example, Sorber saw Algeria's Madjid Bougherra in Scotland, Slovenia's Milivoje Novakovic and Miso Brecko in Germany, and Slovenia's Robert Koren in England. So familiar are U.S. staffers with the opposition that when describing a player who's crafty on the ball and dangerous on free kicks, they'll say he's "like Birsa," i.e., like Slovenian midfielder Valter Birsa. The U.S. has even assembled intelligence on opposing players' psychological profiles. In the case of Algeria, U.S. assistant Pierre Barrieu has tapped connections in his native France, where most of the Algerians have played. If a player has a short fuse or gets frustrated easily, Marsh notes, that's a good thing to know.
Once all the information is entered into the staff's spreadsheets, it's up to the coaches to distill it into digestible bites for the U.S. players—while remembering that the World Cup isn't just about the opponents.
"That's going to be key," says Marsch. "We've still got to get us right."
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French superstar Thierry Henry will almost surely join the Red Bulls from Barcelona after the World Cup, according to a report last week on SI.com. What will it mean for MLS? Plenty. New York has been a sad-sack franchise since the league's start in 1996, failing to win a single trophy. But Henry, 32, will provide the kind of star power the team needs to get noticed in the soccer-savvy Gotham market. While Henry (below) doesn't have David Beckham's Q rating, the Frenchman could produce the kind of goal-scoring highlights that have been few and far between for Beckham in the States. Henry will need to take MLS seriously, but he still has plenty left in the tank and should thrive in the league's fast-running, rough-and-tumble style of play.
LEFTY SHIVAMBU/GALLO IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES (BOUGHERRA)
DATABASE Thanks to in-depth scouting, Algeria's Bougherra (2) and Slovenia's Birsa will pose no surprises for the U.S. next month.
SAMUEL KUBANI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (BIRSA)
[See caption above]
DAVID RAMOS/AP (HENRY)