By Ridge Mahoney
A decent draw means the USA can and must advance, even though as Landon Donovan said in a conference call shortly after the draw, "any time now that we don't advance, we're going to be disappointed."
Many factors the USA has encountered the past few years will apply in South Africa, far beyond rabid interest in a rematch of the famous 1950 World Cup match. The ragged Americans stunned England, 1-0, in probably the biggest upset in the tournament's history. But likely will be the key is what the Americans do against Algeria and Slovenia, two lesser regarded teams that nevertheless survived pressure-packed playoffs to qualify.
"They're not big names but both did very well to qualify for the World Cup," said Bradley. "We paid close attention Algeria in their final few games and the playoff against Egypt; our goalkeeping coach, Zak Abdel, is from there, and I was very impressed with the way Slovenia came through against Russia. They came out of a group with teams we are very familiar with."
Algeria was forced to play an extra match after losing to Egypt, 2-0, in Cairo in their final group game. With both teams tied in points as well as goal difference and goals scored, a playoff was held in Sudan, where the Fennecs prevailed by 1-0. Last summer at the Confederations Cup, the Americans revived their tournament by routing Egypt, 3-0, in their final group game after tough losses to Brazil and Italy.
"We feel we played pretty well in those two games, and the red cards we got didn't help," said Donovan earlier this year. "So beating Egypt to stay alive in the tournament really wasn't a surprise to us."
Slovenia upset the favored Russians on away goals by winning, 1-0, in Maribor after coming away from the first leg in Moscow with a 2-1 defeat. Slovenia finished second in Europe Group 3, behind winner Slovakia and ahead of countries the USA was grouped with in the past two World Cups, Poland (2002) and Czech Republic (2006). Both of whom beat the USA handily.
And as for facing England, renowned for its high-paced Premier League abundant with international stars and a recent history of disappointing its hysterical media following, storylines abound. The nations have met in the past, and players have crossed the Atlantic both ways to play club ball, dating back more than 40 years to the advent of the North American Soccer League to current MLS employee, and Donovan teammate, David Beckham.
"We're not as technically great as England, but technique doesn't always win games," says U.S. defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra, who played four and a half seasons at Fulham before moving on to French club Rennes. "I know American fans are thinking we should advance out of the group and I like that. We feel the same way as well.
"We know the players because the Premiership is so widely watched and we have a few guys that play there, but the World Cup is a one-off match and anything can happen. I know Bob Bradley and the coaching staff will have us fit and prepared, and we'll be ready. We're excited to go down there and compete, and hopefully do something special for this U.S. team."
The first game against England will be heavily scrutinized by fans and the media, and surely ESPN officials are patting themselves on the back for hiring English announcers Martin Tyler, former Liverpool star Steve McManaman, and ex-Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit for its World Cup broadcasts. It is negotiating with another veteran announcer, Ian Darke.
(If ESPN hasn't yet hired former Nigerian international Efan Ekoku, a veteran of English soccer who provided several pertinent insights on the network's three-hour show encompassing the draw, it should.)
The format of the draw, by which teams in Pot 2 played the Pot 1 seeded teams in the first match, assured the Americans of playing a tough opening game unless it had fallen into Group A with host South Africa. Not stated but certainly felt among the U.S. players and Bradley is that among the seeded teams, aside from South Africa, England doesn't equal a few of the others, such as Brazil, Spain, and defending champion Italy.
All three U.S. group games will be played at altitude. The USA opens against England in Rustenburg, which is where both teams will be based and is situated about 5,000 feet above sea level. At the Confederations Cup last summer, the USA beat Egypt, 3-0, in Rustenberg to earn a semifinal date with Spain, which it beat, 2-0, en route to a 3-2 loss against Brazil in the final, which was played in Johannesburg.
Bradley confirmed that the USA is finalizing plans to train at altitude in the spring prior to departing for South Africa.
England and the USA last played a year and half ago at Wembley Stadium. The English won, 2-0. The only other recent meeting was four and half years ago at Soldier Field in Chicago, and the English took a 2-0 lead before a late Clint Dempsey goal got the Americans on the board.
"It was a game where the tempo was fast," says Bradley of the game at Wembley. "I felt that we were working our way into the game and the first goal came when John Terry scored on a set piece [a David Beckham corner kick]. When we were going into the second half, I didn't think our response was that great."
How the USA might respond to the challenge that awaits it June 12 in Rustenberg will escalate anticipation unlike anything else.
(What do you think of the USA's chances against England? And how do you rate Algeria and Slovenia?)