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U.S. players feeling all the buzz at home for World Cup opener vs. England

U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden, lower left, flexes with red, white and blue-waving students in Pretoria, South Africa.

Associated Press

U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden, lower left, flexes with red, white and blue-waving students in Pretoria, South Africa.

IRENE, South Africa — American soccer players have been on magazine covers and the nightly news shows in increasing numbers. The World Cup is receiving unprecedented promotion in the United States.

"For the last six months, all we've seen is U.S.-England," midfielder Landon Donovan said Wednesday. "And so, if you were a casual sports fan at home, you might think that this was the World Cup final, U.S. vs. England."

But it's not. Saturday's much-hyped game is just the beginning.

It's the first competitive meeting between the nations since the 1-0 American upset in the first round of the 1950 World Cup. Fans in both nations seem to be fascinated with the opposing team.

"It's an unprecedented moment," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said, "partly because of who we're playing, partly because of where the game is in the United States. Frankly, partly because of the promotion on television in Spanish and English.

"So there will be a lot of people watching this game on Saturday, and it's one of those opportunities that we don't get very often."

England's stars are known from Broadway to Brighton. Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, John Terry and other Premier League stars are seen even more on U.S. television than they are on British TV.

And top American players such as Donovan, midfielder Clint Dempsey and goalkeeper Tim Howard have become well known in the Premier League, as familiar in the colors of Everton and Fulham as they are in the red, white and blue.

Though all the buzz is about Saturday's game in Rustenberg, U.S. players say they are giving equal emphasis to their other two first-round games, against Slovenia on June 18 and Algeria on June 23. The England game is primary only because it comes first.

"I think we have a good understanding about the way it works in the first round, with three matches determining who moves on," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "Our ability to move through those games and those situations is something that we have experience with."

Four years ago, the United States was routed 3-0 by the Czech Republic in its opener. Even with a 1-1 draw against Italy, the Americans still had a chance to advance.

Only with a 2-1 defeat to the Ghana were they eliminated.

Players know that a team has a good chance to reach the knockout phase with four points and almost surely will with five. They say they won't get too high or too low after the opener.

They think back to last year's Confederations Cup, when the United States started with a 3-1 loss to Italy and a 3-0 defeat against Brazil. To reach the semifinals, the Americans needed to beat Egypt by at least three goals while the world champion Italians lost to Brazil by at least three. The United States responded with a 3-0 victory, and Brazil won by the same score.

Then came one of the great upsets in American soccer history. Forward Jozy Altidore and Dempsey got goals in 2-0 victory over Spain, ending streaks of 15 wins and 35 unbeaten games for the European champion.

"Obviously there's a lot of talk about this first game," defender Jay DeMerit said. "But, you know, we've proved last year that it is about the three games."

Back home, more people are likely to be watching the United States take on England than any game since at least the 1994 second-round World Cup loss to Brazil. That was at Stanford, Calif.

"This game is about where the sport is in the U.S.," Gulati said. "It's water-cooler talk. …And so that's the opportunity we have, to get a whole bunch of people that might be casual observers, to get turned on by it, to get turned on by the hype."

The 1950 U.S. win against England was celebrated in the 2005 movie The Game of Their Lives. Donovan didn't want to imagine what would happen if the United States wins again.

"I don't know who the hell would play me in a movie," he said. "I like Johnny Depp, though."

U.S. injury update: Bradley said Altidore and defender Oguchi Onyewu are fit enough to play against England. Altidore resumed full practice Tuesday, six days after he sprained his right ankle in practice. Onyewu tore his left patellar tendon Oct. 14 during the final Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.

Argentina: Coach Diego Maradona seems to have settled on starting strikers Carlos Tevez, Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain for the opener against Nigeria on Saturday. Argentina is the favorite to win Group B, which also includes Greece and South Korea. Defender Gabriel Heinze said the team is united, with none of the confusion and bickering that existed during qualifying, when the mercurial Maradona used 107 players trying to find a starting 11.

England: Fans preparing to witness soccer with a flair from their team may be disappointed. Midfielder Joe Cole said that winning the tournament could require dull displays. Cole believes the key to capturing the country's first world title since 1966 could be by stifling opponents. "It might not be pretty," he said.

FAST FACTS

World Cup

When/where: Friday-July 11, South Africa

U.S. opener: vs. England, 1:30 p.m. Saturday

TV/radio: Ch. 28, ESPND; 1040-AM

U.S. players feeling all the buzz at home for World Cup opener vs. England 06/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 10:41pm]
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