A look at the three first-round opponents for the United States at next year’s World Cup in South Africa:
Saturday, June 12
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At Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, Rustenberg
Approximate capacity: 50,000
Elevation: 3,783 feet
FIFA ranking: 9th.
Previous meetings: England 7 wins, U.S. 2. Only competitive match was 1-0 U.S. victory in first round of 1950 World Cup on goal by Joe Gaetjens. In last two meetings, England won 2-1 at Soldier Field in 2005 and 2-0 at Wembley last year.
Coach: Fabio Capello.
Key players: F Wayne Rooney (Manchester United); MF Steven Gerrard (Liverpool); MF Frank Lampard, D Ashley Cole and D John Terry, captain (Chelsea); GK David James (Portsmouth); GK Robert Green (West Ham); MF David Beckham (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS).
World Cup experience, previous tournament and best finish: 13th appearance. Lost to Portugal 3-1 on penalty kicks after 0-0 tie in 2006 quarterfinals. Beat Germany 4-2 in overtime in 1966 final at Wembley.
World Cup odds: 5-1.
The scoop: Perhaps the most-followed team in the world, given the visibility and popularity of the Premier League. Despite talented players and being soccer’s mother nation, has won just one World Cup title. Goalkeeper a major weakness – James, whose nickname is “Calamity James,” competing with Green. Beckham is no longer a regular starter but frequently enters in the second half to provide an offensive boost with crosses and free kicks. After failing to qualify for the 2008 European Championship under coach Steve McClaren, won its first eight games in World Cup qualifying under Capello. Its 2006 World Cup campaign, under coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, became infamous for the notorious WAGS – wives and girlfriends of players. The game will be played in the stadium with the smallest capacity among the 10 being used for the World Cup
Friday, June 18
At Ellis Park, Johannesburg
Approximate capacity: 61,000
Elevation: 5,751 feet
FIFA ranking: 33rd.
Previous meetings: Have never met.
Coach: Matjaz Kek.
Key players: F Milivoje Novakovic (Cologne, Germany), F Zlatko Dedic (Bochum, Germany), MF Robert Koren, captain (West Bromwich Albion, England), GK Samir Handanovic (Mantova, Italy)
World Cup experience, previous tournament and best finish: 2nd appearance. Went 0-3 at 2002 tournament, losing to Spain, South Africa and Paraguay. Prior to 1992, competed as part of Yugoslavia.
World Cup odds: 200-1.
The scoop: Qualified in the European playoffs by defeating Russia in a home-and-home playoff. The teams tied 2-2 on aggregate, but Slovenia advanced because it had an away goal by substitute Nejc Pecnik on a header in the 87th minute in the first leg at Moscow. In the second leg at Maribor, Zlatko Dedic scored with one minute left in the first half, his third goal in qualifying. Prime Minister Borut Pahor said after the match he fulfilled his promise – to clean players’ boots if they qualify. “I didn’t do it thoroughly, but enough for a trip to South Africa,” Pahor said. Went 6-2-2 in Europe Group Three, finishing ahead of the Czech Republic, Poland and Northern Ireland. Outscored opponents 20-6 in qualifying. Novakovic had five goals in qualifying. Koren, an attacking midfielder, is captain. Defender Bojan Jokic is a teammate of injured U.S. forward Charlie Davies at Sochaux in France. Lost to England 2-1 in exhibition at Wembley in September, with Frank Lampard and Jermain Defoe scoring for the home team and Zlatan Ljubijankic scoring for Slovakia with five minutes left. NK IB Ljubljana is among the clubs European authorities are investigating for possible match fixing.
Wednesday, June 23
At Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria
Approximately capacity: 50,000
Elevation: 4,364 feet
FIFA ranking: 28th.
Previous meetings: Has never met.
Coach: Rabah Saadane.
Key players: D Nadir Belhadj (Portsmouth, England), D Madjid Bougherra (Rangers, Scotland), D Antar Yahya (Bochum, Germany); M Yazid Mansouri, captain (Lorient, France), M Karim Ziani (Wolfsburg, Germany); F Karim Matmour (Borussia Moechengladbach, Germany); F Rafik Saifi (Al-Khor).
World Cup experience, previous tournament and best finish: 3rd appearance. Eliminated in the first round in 1986 (0-2-1). Failed to advance in 1982 debut despite going 2-1 with victories over West Germany and Chile. Was eliminated a day after what turned out to be its last match when West Germany beat Austria 1-0 in a game in which neither team attacked after Horst Hrubesch’s 10th-minute goal, a result that allowed both German-speaking nations to advance and sparked speculation of a fix. Since then, FIFA has scheduled final group games to be played simultaneously.
World Cup odds: 300-1.
The scoop: Les Fennecs “The Desert Foxes” had possibly the most difficult route to South Africa. The team bus was pelted with stones two days before its highly charged qualifier with Egypt in Cairo, and two of its players were still wearing bandages on their heads during the game. Egypt won 2-0 to force a one-game playoff at a neutral field four days later, which Algeria won 1-0 on Antar Yahya’s goal from an acute angle in the 39th minute to earn its spot in the World Cup. Fans in Paris flooded the streets to celebrate first World Cup trip in 24 years. Most of national team is based in Europe, with many playing in France. Goalkeeping could be an issue. Lounes Gaouaoui has been the primary ‘keeper, but Fawzi Chaouchi is pushing him. Matmour is a teammate of MF Michael Bradley, son of the U.S. coach. Lost final of 1982 African Cup of Nations 2-0 to Nigeria and won African Cup of Nations in 1990 at home.