United States players were almost giddy Friday after a favorable World Cup draw gave them hope 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.
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“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 initial World Cup in 1930, there were high expectation for the Americans at the 2006 tournament in Germany. But they were eliminated in the first round with losses to the Czech Republic and Ghana around a tie with Italy.
The U.S. famously upset England 1-0 in the first round on the 1950 tournament in Brazil, still considered by many the greatest American football 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, with Spain remaining the favorite at 4-1 followed by five-time champion Brazil at 5-1 along with England.
If the Americans finish second in their group, they likely would play Germany in the second round. If they finish first, they probably would advance to a meeting with 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 football’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 European teams.
“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. plays Slovenia at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park on June 18 and completes the first round on June 23 against Algeria in Pretoria. The U.S. has never played either nation.
All three games will be at venues where the U.S. played at this year’s Confederations Cup, and all are at altitudes of 3,700 feet or higher. The Americans lost to Italy and Brazil in Pretoria, defeated Egypt in Rustenburg to advance to the semifinals, then took a two-goal halftime lead against Brazil in the final at Ellis Park before losing 3-2.
“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.”
Watching the draw from Cape Town on television at a Manhattan restaurant, Donovan shrugged his shoulders when South African rugby captain John Smit reached into a clear bowl and picked the white-and-back ball with a blue strip of paper inside containing “USA,” putting the Americans in Group C with England. Beckham stood a few feet away on the draw stage.
For Donovan, the tournament is a chance at redemption.
“We’ve been waiting a long time for this opportunity,” he said. “This is everything to me.”