U.S. finally gets a break in World Cup play

It’s the proverbial tub of butter.

The Americans fell into the softest possible draw at the 2010 World Cup, and will have few excuses for not making the knockout round.

Simply put, this is the best draw the Americans have ever enjoyed in the modern era.

It comes on a day of stunning news.

For the first time, the hosts were not “protected” by FIFA, meaning that South Africa must contend with Mexico, France and Uruguay. In comparison, the Americans join England, Spain and Italy in joy tonight with draws that seem to ensure them safe passage.

“Anytime that we don’t advance we will be disappointed,” said Landon Donovan today on a conference call with the media after the draw. “Our expectation level now is to advance, and that’s good for the team.

“The idea of playing England is very exciting. I think there are a lot of Brits in America, and of course, those of us who grew up playing the game were influenced by them. It should be a lot of fun. And the first game is always important. How that goes determines how the other games go.”

Paired in Group C alongside England, Slovenia and Algeria, the USA will be widely favored to progress to the knockout round along with longtime rivals England. Even better, the USA is within a two-hour drive of each of their games, with matches staged near their training camp in Pretoria — nearby Rustenberg and Johannesburg.

The must-watch game, of course, in the first, against England.

USA have only beaten England twice — and were blanked at Soldier Field 2-0 in their most recent meeting — but the memory of 1950 remains a torch for American soccer fans. Then, a completely amateur side beat the vaunted English 1-0 in a World Cup stunner in Belo Horizonte.

Things have certainly changed since those days, with a number of top American talents playing alongside England’s best in the Premier League — to say nothing of David Beckham playing in MLS alongside Landon Donovan — so for many American fans this will be a juicy pairing that U.S. fans have to be optimistic about.

“England is physical, big, and used to playing at a very high pace,” said Donovan. “We have a lot of guys who have played high level games, but are we as talented as England? Probably not, but we can match their effort.”

England is fielding perhaps their best side since they won the Cup in 1966, with depth and speed throughout their ranks. Wayne Rooney and Jermain Defoe are sure to pressure the U.S. defense, Beckham remains one of the game’s best dead-ball men (if selected to the squad by Fabio Capello), and captain John Terry leads a stalwart defense.

The only weakness on paper for the Lions is in goal, where a number of candidates have cycled through with no single player really holding down the fort.

The Americans have never played the other two teams, but match up well.

Algeria needed a playoff to reach the World Cup, knocking out Egypt in a shocking, thrilling encounter in Sudan that sadly led to mass street violence across two continents.

Algeria has not been in the finals since 1986 and are not considered as bruising a side as the Ivory Coast or Ghana, for example. In fact, the Algerians are best known in world soccer for having missed advancing in 1982 after an infamous incident in which Austria and Germany contrived to produce a result that would qualify both of them at the expense of the Algerians. That game, at the World Cup in Spain, led to the FIFA mandate that all final group games kick off at the same time on the same day.

Slovenia, of course was one of the five nations to come out of the former Yugoslavia, a team the USA did meet as recently as the 1998 France World Cup. The Slovenians were winless in 2002 in Japan, but did qualify for this event by upsetting Russia in the UEFA playoffs.

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“To be candid we have some work to do on researching Algeria and Slovenia,” said Donovan. “Clearly, these are very good teams. We’ve played teams we don’t know a lot about before, but Bob and the staff do a really good job of getting tapes and breaking them down for us, and we do get some sense of who you are playing against.”

Bob Bradley’s side does face some challenges. They are likely to miss talismanic striker Charlie Davies, who is recovering from a serious injury suffered in a car accident this fall.

And, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Maurice Edu have all battled fitness issues and may not get the required playing time at their clubs to be fully ready for the June 12th kickoff. Finally, a number of other key American national team members — most notably Jozy Altidore — are struggling this season with their clubs.

But after a rousing performance against Spain in the Confederations Cup — and even in light of the difficulties that USA have had on the road — the fact that these matches are being played on truly neutral ground against beatable opponents will surely ramp up the pressure on the Yanks to produce.

Jamie Trecker’s newest book, “Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans and Freaks” is out now from Harcourt. Jamie is assisted by Jerry and Janice Trecker. Contact Jamie at jamie.trecker@gmail.com and visit his blog and website at www.jamietrecker.com.