U.S. soccer players were almost giddy Friday after a favorable World Cup draw gave them hope that they’ll reach the second round in South Africa next June.
The Americans will play England in their opener, perhaps the most-anticipated first-round match in the 32-nation tournament. After that, the U.S. faces two low-profile teams in Slovenia and Algeria.
“American fans are thinking we should advance out of the group, and I like that. I like how they’re thinking,” U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. “We feel confident as well that this is a group we can get out of.”
After advancing to the quarterfinals in 2002 – the best U.S. finish since the World Cup began in 1930 – there were high expectation for the Americans at the 2006 tournament in Germany. But they were eliminated in the first round, holding Italy to a tie and losing to the Czech Republic and Ghana.
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The U.S. famously upset England, 1-0, in the first round of the 1950 tournament in Brazil, still considered by many the greatest American soccer victory.
The June 12 game in Rustenburg features a matchup that could pit Los Angeles Galaxy teammates David Beckham and Landon Donovan on opposite teams.
While the English are ranked ninth in the world and have stars such as Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, whose club matches are televised throughout the world, Algeria (28th) and Slovenia (33rd) both needed to win playoffs to reach the tournament and are ranked well behind the U.S. (14th).
“It think it was a very fair group,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “It gives us an opportunity, you know, to play well and to advance.”
Odds on the U.S. winning were lowered from 80-1 to 65-1 after the draw.
If the Americans finish second in their group, they likely would play Germany in the second round.
If they finish first, they probably would play Serbia or Ghana.
“For the U.S., it looks to be a positive grouping,” said Bruce Arena, who coached the Americans at the previous two World Cups. “But again, let’s not count them through yet.”
The U.S. has not done particularly well at soccer’s showcase event. Since returning to the World Cup in 1990 following a 40-year absence, the Americans are 3-12-3 in the tournament, including 1-9-2 against teams from Europe.
“I think it’s one of the more well-balanced groups,” England coach Fabio Capello said. “We’re going to have to be careful. All the games are difficult, and we may start with the toughest game, since the United States will have a lot more time to prepare for the World Cup.”
The U.S. also plays Slovenia on June 18 in Johannesburg and completes the first round against Algeria on June 23 in Pretoria.
“This is the best draw we’ve ever had in any World Cup,” said former U.S. forward Eric Wynalda, now an analyst for the Fox Soccer Channel. “No disrespect to England, but this is an ideal group for us.”
2010 World Cup draw, Page B5