By Steven Goff
RUSTENBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Since the World Cup draw was staged in December and the United States was placed alongside England, forging one of the tournament’s tastiest matchups, every story line has been exhausted.
It’s the inventors of modern soccer facing the historically backwater upstart. It’s the teams’ first World Cup meeting since the Americans shocked England 60 years ago in Brazil. It’s a collection of U.S. players facing the country that employs many of them in its celebrated professional league, which has a strong following in America.
Six months in the making, the U.S. national team has come to this remote outpost at the base of the Magaliesberg mountains in northern South Africa to play arguably the most anticipated match in its history.
“It’s an unprecedented moment,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “It’s one of those opportunities you don’t get very often. It’s a dream game.”
There have been more important U.S. games in recent years — against Brazil in the round of 16 in 1994 and Germany in the 2002 quarterfinal, and perhaps the Confederations Cup encounters with Spain and Brazil last year.
But the long wait between the draw in Cape Town and Saturday’s kickoff at Royal Bafokeng Stadium, combined with the deep cultural and political ties between the nations, has stoked the emotions and contributed to heightened awareness in the otherwise soccer-indifferent United States.
“For the last six months, all we have seen is U.S.-England,” midfielder Landon Donovan said. “So if you were a casual sports fan at home, you might think that this was the World Cup final: U.S. versus England.”
Far from it. But beating England would reverberate around the sporting world and help win over casual U.S. observers watching a rare network telecast of soccer.
U.S. players have proved their worth in the famed English Premier League for years, but “if we now can do it on the national team level against them on a big stage, it only takes the ball a little bit further,” Coach Bob Bradley said.
Added Donovan, the U.S. team’s career scoring leader: “Every time we have an opportunity to play, we have an opportunity to grow the sport, and we clearly understand that every four years, that is magnified and multiplied by a lot.”
Compared with past World Cup appearances, the United States does not face a particularly daunting schedule and is widely regarded as the second-best team in its group. It will play Slovenia on Friday and Algeria five days later.
Advancement would help purge memories of their winless performance at the 2006 tournament in Germany. “Everyone thinks we’re an underdog and England has all the pressure,” midfielder Clint Dempsey said. “We have pressure too. We’ve got to advance out of the group.”
The Americans enter the England match bursting with confidence but bracing for one of the world’s finest strikers, Wayne Rooney, and top-class midfielders Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
Bradley said his team’s “ability to keep track of [Rooney] and make it hard for him is a very, very important part of what we need to do in order to win.”
Uncertainty about the U.S. backline has added to the challenge. Will Oguchi Onyewu, the 6-foot-4 center back who started in the previous World Cup, receive the nod after not playing all 90 minutes in any of the three tuneups? If not, will Bradley shift assignments in order to fortify the middle?
Other mysteries linger. Will Maurice Edu or Ricardo Clark join Michael Bradley in central midfield, where the Americans will need to disrupt English possession?
Bradley did answer one big question: Forward Jozy Altidore, who suffered a mild ankle sprain last Wednesday, will start — a decision that seems likely to thrust speedster Robbie Findley alongside Altidore.
For the players, after a week of training camp at Princeton, two home friendlies and almost two weeks in South Africa, the England match couldn’t come quickly enough.
“We get tired of kicking each other, we get tired of training,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We are together forever. We are just ready to get it on and see what we are made of. All the talk is over, or soon will be over. We are prepared. We know exactly what type of game we are going to be in — we are under no illusions. It couldn’t be a better challenge than to be the first game for us.”
U.S. note: Twice on Friday, the U.S. team bus had its trip interrupted because an elephant was in the road. For two days, the delegation has stayed at a lodge on the edge of Pilanesberg National Park, 23 miles from Rustenburg.