According to one European bookie the odds of the U.S. winning next year's World Cup in South Africa were 80 to 1 before last week's draw. After the U.S. was slotted with England, Slovenia and Algeria in the first round, those odds fell to 60 to 1, a shift that fairly represents the uptick in optimism American players and fans experienced last week.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley consistently used the word "fair" to describe his team's placement in Group C, but after receiving their most favorable draw in years, the Americans' chances are better than fair to advance past the group stage for the third time since their return to the World Cup in 1990. "We don't take any opponent lightly," said Bradley, who was in Cape Town for the draw last Friday, "but we have an opportunity that we are excited about."
That excitement does not stem from a June 12 opening match against England, a game dripping with subplots. It's a rematch of the U.S.'s 1--0 defeat of the Three Lions in 1950, considered by many the greatest upset in World Cup history; David Beckham faces his Los Angeles Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan; English football, familiar to American fans thanks to the popularity of the Premier League and the number of Yanks playing there, is invariably held up as a standard against which U.S. soccer is measured. But coach Fabio Capello's boys present an unfavorable pairing in almost every way. The Americans' strengths—physicality, fitness and defense—are also England's assets, but England has superior technical ability and a deeper talent pool.
"[England] presses the ball," Donovan said on Friday. "In their league the games are very fast, and they can play at that level for 90 minutes, so we're going to have to make sure that we slow that down or that we can play at that level. Otherwise we don't have a chance."
The U.S. will hope for a tie or a narrow loss to England and then look to defeat Slovenia, arguably the weakest European entry in the Cup field, and Algeria, perhaps the least dangerous of the five African teams that went through qualifying. Slovenia is disciplined and can defend but is not athletic and relies heavily on the counterattack. Algeria has some skilled players but can be shaky in the back. Given that the U.S. is familiar with the altitude and its first-round stadiums in and around Johannesburg, thanks to last summer's Confederations Cup, the expectations of U.S. fans are rightly at a peak. "I like how [the fans] are thinking," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "We feel confident as well that this is a group we can get out of. And now that we know where we're going and who we're going to face, we can get our World Cup fever on."