JOHANNESBURG — Five things to watch for the U.S.’s World Cup opener against England in Rustenburg on Saturday (ABC, Univisión, 2:30 p.m. ET):
• Can World Cup history repeat itself? I know, I know, it happened 60 years ago. But the last time these two teams met at the World Cup, in 1950, the U.S. pulled off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the tournament, taking down mighty England 1-0 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. It would be a milder shock this time if the Yanks prevailed, but it would still be huge global news. Two of the surviving players from that U.S. team, Frank Borghi and Harry Keough, will gather together in St. Louis to watch the game and hope for another glorious day in the history of American soccer.
• Will Wayne Rooney run rampant? He’s one of the world’s top five players, and while there’s no way for the U.S. to necessarily stop Rooney, you can be sure the Americans will make every effort to slow him down. It’s unlikely that the U.S. will strictly man-mark Rooney, but I expect center back Jay DeMerit will be on the Manchester United striker the majority of the time. If Rooney is able to find gaps in the U.S. defense, all he needs is a split-second to unleash a fearsome shot. The not-exactly-speedy U.S. defenders will have to help each other out on Rooney while not forgetting to account for a big English target forward (Peter Crouch or Emile Heskey) and the blazing speed of Aaron Lennon moving down the right wing.
• Can Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey get behind England’s outside backs? England’s left back (Ashley Cole) and right back (Glen Johnson) like to push forward on the attack. It’s part of what makes England so dangerous, but that could also leave space for Donovan and Dempsey—the U.S.’s two most creative attackers—to cause problems down the flanks and cutting into the middle. Donovan has been playing more on the right side for the U.S. lately (he played more on the left through World Cup qualifying), and coach Bob Bradley may well leave him there to take on Cole, whom Donovan played well against in Everton’s victory over Chelsea during the Premiership season.
• Which team will win the set-piece battle? Both teams will threaten anytime they win a corner kick or a free kick within striking range, so the side that avoids giving many of those chances will be better off. Even without David Beckham, England (through Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard) has a better chance of scoring on a direct free-kick than the Americans. But the U.S. does have several players who can get their heads on balls into the box (Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore), as does England (Crouch/Heskey, John Terry, Ledley King). It’s amazing how often games are decided by set-pieces. Will it happen again here?
• Which lineup options will Bob Bradley choose? In 2006 it was easy to predict the U.S.’s starting lineup for the first game of the World Cup. This time nobody is so sure. Who will start alongside Jozy Altidore at forward: Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle or Herculez Gómez? (I’m leaning toward the speedster Findley, even though Buddle scored twice on Saturday against Australia.) Who will start next to Michael Bradley in the central midfield: Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu or José Torres? (I’m leaning toward the more defensive-minded Clark by a hair over Edu, but only if the knock that Clark suffered against Austrlia has healed.) And who will start next to DeMerit in the central defense: Onyewu or Clarence Goodson? (I’m leaning toward Onyewu, even though he hasn’t played a full 90 minutes in more than seven months.)
I think this game could open up as it goes on. How do you see things playing out? Post your comments below, and check back later on the World Cup blog.