BRENT LATHAM - Friday, December 4, 2009
American coach Bob Bradley and players Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra are pleased to finally know their opponents for next year's World Cup in South Africa.
After drawing a foursome including England, Algeria, and Slovenia, one that Bradley labeled as "fair," the U.S. is anxious to return to South Africa, where they took second place in the Confederations Cup earlier this year. The Americans will have the added advantage of familiarity with their surroundings, with all three group games to take place in stadiums in which the Americans played during their trip to South Africa in June.
"It takes a good solid set of games," said Bradley via conference call from South Africa. "The first round is about three games and how to prepare for each one. The fact that all the games in Johannesburg area helps since we know the stadiums, we are familiar with the altitude. So I think there are things we took from the Confederations Cup that we can apply."
"That tournament was really important for us in terms of knowing that we can play like that," said Donovan. "If we play three games like that we can get out of the group."
The coach and players are happy to kick off with world powers England, where pleasure has been universally expressed for what is generally considered a walk-over draw for the English and their cadre of Premier League stars. But Bradley pointed out that big teams often start slow in the World Cup, given the huge amount of pressure heaped on them by fans and the media.
"World Cup history shows that you have a period to prepare, then all of a sudden the World Cup starts and if the big team doesn't get off to a good start it can really bring on extra pressure - the media, the response," Bradley said. "That's why in the first games you see teams play cautiously. Our focal point is going to be on the opportunity we have there."
The fact that opening game is sure to draw the interest of even casual fans in the United States is not lost on USSF chief Sunil Gulati, who called the match a chance to market the game further.
"Opening the World Cup with that kind of game will just open up tremendous interest in the US," said Bradley. "It will be special for our team."
"A lot of us here have played there and we're quite familiar with their players," said Bocanegra. "That brings a little more excitement. The first game, playing against them, is a pretty cool thing."
The Americans have crossed the English on a number of previous occasions, without too much luck. Sure to be referenced ad nauseum in the months leading up to kickoff on June 12th is the Americans' 1-0 upset victory over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, in what was the Americans' last participation in the tournament for forty years, until their reemergence in 1990.
"As much as a fan of the game as a player, I'm excited for this game," said Donovan. "A lot of our fans are showing up in numbers in South Africa, so I'm hoping that will help us."
The US and England have played two friendly matches in this decade, with the Americans coming up short on both occasions, including a 2-0 loss in Wembley Stadium in the summer of 2007.
"We know we didn't play well," said Bocanegra of that game. "We weren't on that night. We've played them a few times but when it comes down to the World Cup it's a whole 'nother ball game."
Bradley pointed out repeatedly that the group is four teams deep, and that despite the allure of the opening match, overlooking European upstarts Slovenia, which knocked out Russia in a home-and-home playoff to qualify, and Algeria, which undid two-time defending African champion Egypt to reach the Finals, would be a mistake.
"We watched the end of qualifying in Africa very carefully. We're familiar with where some of the Algerian players play," Bradley said. "They're not exactly the same team as Egypt but we have the experience of having played Egypt last year. Slovenia has some players in Germany. Algeria and Slovenia are not big name teams but both did very well to get to the World Cup. There are no easy games in the World Cup, but it's a fair group, one that gives the opportunity to do things the right way and figure out how to advance."
"Algeria and Slovenia are two good teams," added Bocanegra, "and just cause everyone sees England and the U.S. in the group doesn't mean that this is going to be a cakewalk."
In the interim between the draw and kickoff with England on June 12th, the Americans will have a slew of other issues to deal with, including a number of important players racing against the clock to overcome injury and get back in game shape. Just this week, the team got good news when centerback Jay DeMerit and would-be midfielder Jermaine Jones returned to practice with their respective club teams.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu is in the midst of a less secure timeline back to fitness, while forward Charlie Davies, despite quick progress, still faces an almost impossible road to the World Cup. In the face of that adversity, Bradley said the injuries have given him a chance to build depth on the roster at a critical time.
"We're always trying to build our team in different ways," the coach said. "Last summer we thought was a good time to take a look at Charlie Davies. That type of thinking always continues with different players. In the Confederations Cup when we played, late in the game Clint Dempsey would move up front. He's played recently with Fulham up front. You hope with injured players they will get the chance to come back. With Oguchi's injury it's easier to know where he'll be one or two months from now. In the meantime we look for ways to build the depth there. Injuries force your hand a little bit more."
Whoever takes the field for the U.S. when play begins in the South African countryside in Rustenburg in June, the Americans will be widely expected to advance out of a group that will be seen as among the easiest in next year's tournament. If the Americans can get through to the group stage, they have a chance to set a new high water mark for their World Cup performance, as the draw also assured they would avoid favorites Brazil and Spain until at least the semi-finals.
"America loves winners," said Bocanegra. "To be fair, maybe our performances over the past years have made the expectations grow. American fans expect us to get out of this group, and I like that. We, the players, expect to get out of the group."
"Now it feels like it's finally here," the defender concluded, adding himself to the legions of fans who can't wait for June. "We know where we're going; we know who we have to face. I've got a little World Cup fever now."