U.S. fired up to face England in World Cup opener

JOHANNESBURG — When the United States played its final home tuneup game in Philadelphia before leaving for the World Cup, a couple of elderly gentlemen were introduced to the players before the start.

Harry Keough, 82, and Walter Bahr, 83, know what lies ahead for the team today in Rustenburg. They've been there, done that.

Keough and Bahr — father of former NFL kickers (and soccer players) Chris and Matt — were starters on the U.S. team that scored one of soccer's all-time upsets, astounding the globe by defeating England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

Now, 60 years later, it is England that once again will line up on the opposite side of the halfway line, this time at 44,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium.

England comes into the tournament as a legitimate contender, a team of experience, strength and potential. The United States is an underdog, but the pressure is all on England. If the Americans lose, it was to be expected. If the English lose, the consequences are incalculable.

"I understand this is a really, really important moment for the country, but I am relaxed," said England's Italian-born coach, Fabio Capello. "This team has improved a lot. We've found a spirit. Things are good now."

Capello can afford to be calm; at every position he has starters that are seasoned professionals, some of them world class. Every one of his 23 players performs weekly in the English Premier League.

The United States can't compare, at least not man for man. But as a team, and on the right day, who knows?

Capello, who said he wouldn't disclose his starting lineup until two hours before kickoff, can field an attack with speed and power, through Wayne Rooney. England also can attack in the air, through Peter Crouch and John Terry. It can attack from distance, through Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. It can attack down the wings, through Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson.

It could, in other words, be a long night for the U.S. defense and for goalkeeper Tim Howard.

But Howard plays for Everton in the Premier League and is one of the world's best. And he is fired up, to say the least. After being the backup to Kasey Keller at Germany 2006, it is his time to shine.

"It's going to be pretty incredible," Howard said. "I don't know what's going to be better — (being) at the bar back home with friends watching (the game) or actually playing in it.

"I think our country is going to stop (for the game), I really do. Everyone is going to stop and be watching."

If Capello opts to start Rooney and Crouch up front, it presents the United States defense with two problems. Rooney has the speed, guile and power. Crouch, at 6 feet 7, is an obvious aerial threat. Both are first-class finishers.

"You see that a lot in soccer nowadays, where you have a big guy and a smaller guy running off of him, so it's not something we've never seen before," U.S. defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra said.

Fellow defender Steve Cherundolo acknowledges the multiple threats facing the back line.

"That's the objective in this game," he said, "to keep you on your heels, to create mistakes. When you have one good player next to another good player next to another good player, one of those good players is going to be open eventually.

"So that's an advantage that England may have, but if we do our job right, if we help each other out, if we play as a team, we won't make many mistakes, and I really like our chances."

The Americans will have their most experienced forward starting for them. Coach Bob Bradley said Jozy Altidore, who sprained his right ankle June 2 during training, will start.

"It was always our sense it was a minor injury," Bradley said.

U.S. fired up to face England in World Cup opener 06/11/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 12, 2010 12:06am]

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