JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - This country is filling with those passionate for the world's game, those preparing for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

Across the Atlantic, the question of U.S.progress in the sport is still worth asking, as is the question of the potential implications of Saturday's blockbuster clash with England.

"Every time we step on the field as a national team, we represent all the people who are involved in soccer in the United States," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "And the ability to perform at the highest level and be successful - we understand what that means to everybody."

On Saturday afternoon, the U.S. plays England in Rustenburg, South Africa. It will be each team's opening match of the World Cup and one of the most-anticipated matches in U.S. soccer history.

"It's an unprecedented moment," said Sunil Gulati, President of U.S. Soccer. "Partly because of who we're playing . . . in terms of marketing, you couldn't ask for anything better, it's a dream game."

Gulati said he felt there would be more interest in Saturday's game than any the U.S. has played "in some time."

Maybe the most interest ever?

"Maybe," said Gulati, pausing and thinking. "Yeah, I think that's probably right. Certainly the water-cooler talk is greater than anything I've seen. Around the World Cup, around the U.S. being in it, around the U.S.-England game."

Gulati pointed toward the multiple magazine covers - Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Time - as indications of the country's increased interest in the sport.

"Does anyone remember the last time that happened for soccer?" Gulati said. "A lot of those companies understand it's more important in the United States now."

Despite his enthusiasm for the progress, Gulati was realistic about the perception of the U.S. game, specifically Major League Soccer, which has been in existence for only 15 years, compared to the legacy of Europe's premier leagues.

"I think we do get a lot of respect in many places in the world, but there's still people in the U.S. who ask, 'So, when do you think soccer will take off?' And there are still articles across the Atlantic that say MLS is a good pub-team [league]."

Gulati said the national team's success is a "leading indicator" of the sport's future, is "symbolic" of the sport's progress.

"I think of how far soccer has come since I started," said U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan. "I know, first-hand, how much we love this sport in our country and how much we've put into it."

Does Donovan understand the implications of a victory on Saturday?

"As an athlete that sees the big picture, to let my mind go there . . . I understand how much was put into this game, and I understand how much it means, I definitely do," Donovan said. "But there is more to it."

"I don't know what else we have to do," said Gulati when asked about earning more respect for the U.S. "I guess part of what else we have to do would be a win on Saturday."

Read Kate Fagan's World Cup blog, Kickin' It,

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