U.S. aims to win new fans at World Cup

The head of U.S. soccer believes a World Cup match rich in history between the United States and England can capture the imagination of new fans.

Federation president Sunil Gulati said Saturday that their shared connection with “cultural icon” David Beckham also makes the June 12 match the most fascinating of the first-round draw in South Africa.

“This game will generate a lot of interest in the soccer community and in the broader American community,” Gulati told The Associated Press. “We’ll spend a lot of time and effort promoting the match.

“It’s extremely exciting for any number of reasons. Historical between the countries, historical because of football, current because of David Beckham and Landon Donovan.”

The marquee players are teammates at Los Angeles Galaxy but endured a difficult relationship after Donovan criticized Beckham’s leadership style in a book analyzing the English star’s impact in the States. The U.S. forward apologized for airing his views and the pair helped carry the Galaxy to the MLS Cup final last month.

“With Landon, who’s pretty clearly our key player, and David playing on the same team, and the book and all that, I think there’s a lot of interesting storylines,” Gulati said.

One compelling narrative is a sequel to the two countries’ last World Cup meeting, which has become part of soccer legend.

A team of semipro Americans shocked an England lineup featuring several greats with a 1-0 win at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. It was seen by just a few thousand fans in Belo Horizonte, while the Royal Bafokeng stadium in Rustenburg is guaranteed to be a 42,000 sellout.

Gulati believes the U.S. can build on its breakout performance at the Confederations Cup, an eight-team test played in South Africa last June. A Donovan-inspired team lost 3-2 in the final to five-time world champion Brazil and seized the attention of mainstream sports fans back home.

“Clearly expectations have changed,” Gulati said. “I don’t think our players mind the higher level of expectations, they just now have to go and perform.”

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The World Cup draw on Friday gave every opportunity to do that for the United States.

After opening against England, the 14th-ranked U.S. plays No. 33 Slovenia in Johannesburg and No. 28 Algeria in Pretoria, near its expected training camp.

“We’re excited. There aren’t any easy groups but we feel like we’ve got a fair chance to do well,” Gulati said. “And if you were laying it out, you would certainly like that schedule.”

The U.S. knows all three high-altitude venues from its Confed Cup program. Coach Bob Bradley’s men also will not have to fly between matches or come down to play at sea level.

All of which meant Gulati could enjoy his breakfast Saturday with officials from England’s Football Association at their hotel in downtown Cape Town.

Already rivals in the bidding race for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, they will kick off the 2010 event together.

“We’ve had a long-term great relationship with the FA,” Gulati said. “It’s always a friendly rivalry.”