The wait is over.
Saturday, the United States men’s soccer team will finally take the field at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa for its much-awaited first contest against England.
The match, which was announced months ago when Cup groups were set, has been one of the most anticipated sporting events since.
After the Americans made their name known at the Confederations Cup last year, finishing as the unexpected runner-up following a huge semifinals win over then-top-ranked Spain, its fans have wanted nothing more than to see the team perform on the world’s biggest stage.
That time has come and the stage is set.
The United States joins England, Algeria and Slovenia in Group C, one of eight four-team groups in South Africa, to kickoff World Cup play.
The Americans will play one game against each nation in its grouping, and after each team has played three games, the top two teams from the group will advance.
While the U.S. failed to make it past round one in 2006, its fans expect a different result this year. Expectations are high, and deservingly so.
The Americans enter play this year not only with a more talented roster, but with a much more fortunate draw than they had in 2006.
Four years ago in Germany, the U.S. fell into a group with Italy, Ghana and the Czech Republic. Italy, of course, ended up winning the 2006 World Cup and Ghana and the Czechs proved to be no slouches themselves, both defeating the U.S. in their first round matchups.
This year, however, the Americans’ stellar international play prior to the tournament secured the team a more manageable grouping.
Other than England, the two other teams the Americans will face in round one are unproven and relatively untested.
Slovenia enters the World Cup as the smallest country in the field and the second youngest nation in this year’s tournament, having just gained its independence in 1993.
Algeria, on the other hand, may be the weakest African team in the field, making its first appearance at the World Cup in 24 years.
But anything can happen at the World Cup.
One point or one mistake can mean the difference between a nation advancing or packing its bags, leaving its one chance in four years empty-handed and disappointed.
That thought is one that makes Saturday’s matchup against England that much more important for the Americans.
A United States win over England puts the Americans in the drivers seat with a clear path to the second round of 16.
A loss to England, however, makes the Americans’ final two games against Algeria and Slovenia much more important than they would be, turning the pressure up considerably and leaving little room for mistakes.
That’s the type of scenario this American team does not need.
In its friendly’s leading up to the World Cup, it was obvious the Americans were still working out the kinks, as head coach Bob Bradley fiddled with the roster during games and the U.S. looked hot sometimes, and ice cold at other times.
This team isn’t the same team that won the Confederations Cup.
After star U.S. forward Charlie Davies was nearly killed in a car accident in October, the Americans have been in the process of revamping its attack throughout the months leading up to the Cup.
Without Davies, the Americans lack the talent they need to line up in the 4-4-2 formation that earned them such great success last year, and now enter the Cup relying on Jozy Altidore as the team’s lone reliable striker.
On top of its struggles up front, the U.S. has had a hard time finding consistency in the back as well. Star defender Oguchi Onyewu anchored the Americans’ back line throughout the Confederations Cup, but three months later ruptured his left patellar tendon.
It wasn’t until less than two weeks ago in the American’s friendly against the Czech Republic when Onyewu returned to the U.S. lineup, looking still a little rusty, days before the Cup.
The United States’ team is a talented team, but one with question marks nonetheless.
That’s why it’s so important for the red, white, and blue to get off to a good start.