The new era of United States soccer began on June 24, 2009, 74 minutes into the men's national team's match against Spain. It was the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, and with the U.S. up 1-0, Clint Dempsey took the ball off Sergio Ramos's foot and beat Iker Casillas for the upset-sealing goal. With the U.S. up two with a quarter hour to play, every supporter had license to think: The United States was going to beat Spain, end the European champions' record 35-match unbeaten streak, and finally raise the curtain on an era where the U.S. would be a legitimate soccer power.
If the close call in the final four days later (a 3-2 loss to Brazil) affirmed that status, the year that's followed as seen less conclusive results. The United States lost a much-anticipated qualifier in Mexico and has subsequently lost friendlies to Slovakia, Denmark and the Netherlands - matches where the States juggled injuries to Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu, and Charlie Davies. While results have not met the expectations set by the Spain win, the inability to get a healthy squad in place has given fans reason to hope last June's results can be replicated, should the United States return to health.
Charlie Davies is not going to be in South Africa, but the rest of the injured will have recovered, allowing the United States to put England squarely in their cross-hairs. The two teams meet on June 12, opening Group C play with a match that, with the possible exception of Brazil-Portugal, is the most anticipated of the tournament's group stage.
In the mind of a soccer world whose most vivid memory of the U.S. is their defeat of Spain, a United States defeat of England would complete the nation's ascendancy. All the Yanks have to do is give England reason to remember 1950.
How They Got Here
After easing through second and third round qualifying in CONCACAF, the U.S. won "the hex" - the final, six team, round-robin tournament which identified the three teams from the confederation which will be in South Africa. The U.S. finished one point ahead of Mexico, the second consecutive qualifying cycle the States have placed first in the region.
How They've Fared Before
This is the sixth World Cup the United States have qualified for since 1990, with the team advancing out of the group stage in 1994 and 2002. In '94, while hosting the tournament, the U.S. lost to Brazil in the Round of 16, while in 2002 the United States made it to the quarterfinals before losing to Germany.
United States attacker Clint Dempsey has become the country's most accomplished out-field player in the international club game. (Photo: MEXSPORT/CHRIS BRUNSKILL Photo via Newscom)
Players To Watch
There are five players whose skill sets and accomplishments distinguish them from their teammates.
Clint Dempsey is the team's most accomplished out-field player at the club level, becoming arguably the best player in a Fulham team that finished the 2008-09 English Premier League season in seventh place. Though a late winter knee injury has served as a speed bump, Dempsey's still played a vital role in the Cottager's run to the final of the 2009-10 Europa League. His play on the left side of Fulham's midfield saw him named to Italian paper Gazzetta dello Sport's midseason best XI in England.
Landon Donovan is the team's most recognized player stateside and established himself in the international club game during a winter loan spell at English Premier side Everton. He has scored more goals than any player in the history of U.S. men's soccer and is the team's most capped active player. He is expected to play on the wing opposite Dempsey.
Tim Howard has spent the last nine years keeping goal in the English Premier League, starting with Manchester United in 2003 before moving to Everton in 2006. The 31-year-old has made 49 appearances for the national team and was recognized as the best goalkeeper at last year's Confederations Cup.
Michael Bradley will be appearing in his first World Cup, having established himself in the central midfield of German Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach. At 22-years-old, he has already made 41 appearances for the national team, scoring seven goals.
Oguchi Onyewu's landmark summer move from Belgium's Standard Liège to Italy's AC Milan was soured by an early-season knee injury that has kept the central defender out since October 14, 2009. Known as "Gooch," the son of Nigerian immigrants is the tallest out-field player in U.S. soccer history (6' 4") and, when healthy and in-form, may be the team's best player, relative to his position.
How Far Can They Get
It will not be easy for the United States to get out of their group, with both Algeria and Slovenia presenting distinct match-up problems. Supporters are narrowly focused on England, but even if the U.S. toppled the Three Lions, moving out of Group C will not be guaranteed, particularly given the form Slovenia has shown over the last two years.
Still, the Round of 16 is the expectation, where they would be underdogs to one of Germany, Ghana, or Serbia.
If the United States are to leave South Africa with a new place in the world's game, they will need to either beat England or win that Round of 16 match.
Given what they accomplished last year in South Africa, there is reason to think they can do both.
|Guzan, Brad||25||15||0||Aston Villa (England)|
|Hahnemann, Marcus||37||6||0||Wolverhampton Wanderers|
|Howard, Tim||31||49||0||Everton (England)|
|Bornstein, Jonathan||25||29||2||Chivas USA (United States)|
|Bocanegra, Carlos||31||77||12||Rennes (France)|
|Cherundolo, Steve||31||57||2||Hannover 96 (Germany)|
|DeMerit, Jay||30||17||0||Watford (England)|
|Goodson, Clarence||28||11||2||Start (Norway)|
|Marshall, Chad||25||11||1||Columbus Crew (United States)|
|Onyewu, Oguchi||28||51||5||Milan (Italy)|
|Pearce, Heath||25||31||0||FC Dallas (United States)|
|Spector, Jonathan||24||24||0||West Ham United (England)|
|Beasley, DeMarcus||28||90||17||Rangers (Scotland)|
|Bedoya, Alejandro||23||2||0||Örebro (Sweden)|
|Bradley, Michael||22||41||7||Borussia Mönchengladbach (Germany)|
|Clark, Ricardo||27||27||2||Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)|
|Dempsey, Clint||27||60||17||Fulham (England)|
|Donovan, Landon||28||121||42||Los Angeles Galaxy (United States)|
|Edu, Maurice||24||12||0||Rangers (Scotland)|
|Feilhaber, Benny||25||31||2||AGF (Denmark)|
|Holden, Stuart||24||12||2||Bolton Wanderers (England)|
|Kljestan, Sacha||24||23||4||Chivas USA (United States)|
|Rogers, Robbie||23||11||1||Columbus Crew (United States)|
|Torres, José Francisco||22||8||0||Pachuca (Mexico)|
|Altidore, Jozy||20||24||8||Villareal (Spain)|
|Buddle, Edson||29||1||0||Los Angeles Galaxy (United States)|
|Ching, Brian||32||44||11||Houston Dynamo (United States)|
|Findley, Robbie||24||4||0||Real Salt Lake (United States)|
|Gomez, Herculez||28||2||0||Puebla (Mexico)|
|Johnson, Eddie||26||40||12||Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)|
* - age as of June 11, 2010