First U.S. match a measuring stick
A competitive game against England would show how far the team has come.
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Magazine covers and ESPN commercials have framed the moment, but on Saturday afternoon, U.S. Soccer will be responsible for seizing it.
After months, then weeks, then days of anticipation, the United States will play world-power England in its opening match of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on Saturday.
The game will be played at Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, a city two hours north of Johannesburg. Royal Bafokeng is one of the tournament's smaller venues, seating only 38,646.
Millions more will be watching.
For the United States, Saturday's match is an opportunity to prove its progress in the world's game.
"There's no reason why we can't compete with England," midfielder Landon Donovan said. "If we give ourselves a chance to make plays and we make them, we can beat them."
A growing number of the U.S. players have earned positions in the English Premier League, one of the richest and most prestigious leagues in the world. But there are still question marks surrounding America's ability to compete, consistently, with Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Spain, and, of course, England.
"This is everything that we've dreamed of, and everything that everyone is talking about, and so we're ready to just get it on and see what we're made of," said Tim Howard, the U.S. team's starting goalkeeper.
Saturday's match is the first of three in the group stage. The United States and England are joined by Slovenia and Algeria in Group C.
Only two teams advance out of group play.
England, led by striker Wayne Rooney, is the favorite since it is the world's eighth-ranked team. The United States is No. 14.
In the days of training leading up to the game, starting lineups and strategy have been discussed only in the most vague terms. One question that has dogged the Americans is how they aim to defend Rooney, who has earned a reputation for scoring goals and losing his temper.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley said his team would play hard, but would not single out Rooney.
England coach Fabio Capello said he spoke with Rooney about controlling himself.
"Rooney played in the qualification; he played all the games, no problem with the referee," Capello said. "I hope it will be the same Rooney in the World Cup."
In 2006 in Germany, the U.S. team was a disappointment, failing to advance out of the group stage. On Saturday, the United States will be the center of the country's sporting conscience, a venue it rarely occupies.
"We understand that every four years soccer is magnified and multiplied," Donovan said.
Add the "England factor" to that and on Saturday, the United States will be under a microscope.