U.S. vs. England: A World Cup clash of history, strength and luck

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa -- When the U.S. played its final home tuneup game in Philadelphia before leaving for the World Cup, a couple of elderly gentlemen were introduced to the players before the start.

Harry Keough, 82, and Walter Bahr, 83, know what lies ahead for the American team Saturday in Rustenburg. They’ve been there, done that.

Keough and Bahr were starters on the U.S. team that scored one of soccer’s all-time upsets, astounding the globe by defeating England, 1-0, at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

Now, 60 years later, it is England that once again will line up on the opposite side of the halfway line, this time at the 44,000-seat Royal Bafokeng Stadium on what promises to be a chilly but memorable night.

England comes into the tournament as a legitimate contender, a team of experience, strength and potential. The U.S. is a decided underdog, but the pressure is all on England. If the Americans lose, it was to be expected. If the English lose, the consequences are incalculable.

“I understand this is a really, really important moment for the country, but I am relaxed,” said England’s Italian-born coach, Fabio Capello. “This team has improved a lot. We’ve found a spirit. Things are good now.”

Capello can afford to be calm; at every position he has starters who are seasoned professionals, some of them world-class. Every one of his 23 players performs weekly in the English Premier League. They are, in other words, battle-hardened.

The U.S. can’t compare, at least not man-for-man. But as a team, and on the right day, who knows?

England can attack with speed and power, through Wayne Rooney. It can attack in the air, through Peter Crouch and John Terry. It can attack from distance, through Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. It can attack down the wings, through Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson.

It could, in other words, be a long night for the U.S. defense and especially for goalkeeper Tim Howard.

But Howard is fired up, to say the least. After being the backup to Kasey Keller at Germany ’06, it is his time to shine.

“It’s going to be pretty incredible,” Howard said. “I don’t know what’s going to be better — [being] at the bar back home with friends watching it, or actually playing in it.

“I think our country is going to stop, I really do. Everyone is going to stop and be watching.”

How long their attention lingers depends on how long the U.S. stays in the hunt. If Capello opts to start Rooney and Crouch up front, it presents the U.S. defense with two problems. Rooney has the speed, guile and power. Crouch, at 6 feet 7, is an obvious aerial threat. Both are first-class finishers.

“You see that a lot in soccer nowadays, where you have a big guy and a smaller guy running off of him, so it’s not something we’ve never seen before,” said U.S. defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra.

Fellow defender Steve Cherundolo acknowledges the multiple threats facing the back line.

“That’s the objective in this game,” he said, “to keep you on your heels, to create mistakes. When you have one good player next to another good player next to another good player, one of those good players is going to be open eventually.

“So that’s an advantage that England may have, but if we do our job right, if we help each other out, if we play as a team, we won’t make many mistakes and I really like our chances.”

Rooney is a particular worry.

“You’re not going to shut him down for 90 minutes,” Cherundolo said. “He’ll get his chances here and there. You just have to make sure it’s not a great chance, that it’s a half-chance. If on that day he’s having a great day and scores on that half-chance, then that’s the quality of a Wayne Rooney.”