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Friday, December 4, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: December 5, 7:44 PM UK
U.S. lucks into an ideal draw for 2010

Steve Davis, Special to ESPN.com

A seismic shift in attitude toward next summer's World Cup is utterly palpable among U.S. soccer supporters. As the day began, U.S. fans had reason to expect the worst. A history of nasty draws and a recent crop of up-and-down performances had churned up a certain bitter cynicism. By the end of Friday's prolonged-but-stirring proceedings from South Africa, "overwhelming joy" had routed "dread" as the prevailing sentiment among U.S. supporters, who now have every reason to believe their side can slip into the second round next summer. The United States will meet England, Algeria and Slovenia in a draw that played out about as well as it possibly could for manager Bob Bradley and his Americans. They get a gloriously high-profile matchup with England right away, on the tournament's second day, then have it all in front of them as the first round tumbles forth. All things considered, this is probably the United States' most favorable draw in the modern day. Even Bradley seemed thrilled at Friday's outcome. "We feel that this is a group that gives us a real fair chance to move on," he told ESPN immediately after the draw. In the big picture, the World Cup became "real" on Friday. Oh, the qualification process certainly had some pinch and pang of reality around here. And all along, U.S. supporters could indulge the enormity of it all; the World Cup is, after all, peerless in global soccer magnitude. But what would actually be unfolding next summer in South Africa was always smothered in a hazy smoke screen of nervous conjecture. The real nitty-gritty was scant. Until, that is, a bunch of dancing pingpong balls and pots were aligned with FIFA's self-interested efforts of pre-draw manipulation Friday -- never mind the unneeded adornment of dance, pretty people and circumstance in Cape Town. Now we finally begin to fill in some of the blanks of cause, effect and enormous consequence. For the United States, suffice it to say no one can complain that Americans never get a fair shake in these draws, not after Friday's dandy landing. Even if the United States were to look positively awful against England on June 12 in Rustenburg, all hope would hardly be lost. Not by a long shot, considering the relative strength of the opposition from there. ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas said it best: "If you can't find a way to beat Algeria and Slovenia, you don't deserve to move on," he said. After meeting England, Bradley's bunch faces Slovenia on June 18 at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. If there is not something left to play for as the U.S. concludes Group C play against Algeria on June 23 in Pretoria, then something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
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Elsewhere, the blockbuster fearsome foursome (unfortunately written in too many circles as the "group of death") will feature Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal, in addition to the wildly unfortunate North Koreans, who will serve as virtual sparring partners for the heavy-weapons trio. Welcome back to the World Cup, North Korea, and don't forget to collect your gift for participation on the way back to the airport. But on this side of the Atlantic, so many had waded ever so cautiously into Friday's proceedings, sure that the United States would be "slapped upside the head," as Lalas said, with a bugger of a draw. Instead, it could only have landed more softly perhaps if England weren't up first, as the key to group play is gaining control straightaway by claiming all three points. That said, all the pressure will be on Fabio Capello's squad, one of the world's most highly scrutinized sides. The oddsmakers surely will tip England, and that favors the U.S. propensity to perform better as an underdog. Besides, England does have a history of slow World Cup starts. At Germany 2006, a third-minute own goal by unheralded Paraguay helped the Three Lions dodge an early stumble. David Beckham supplied the slippery free kick that the South Americans bundled into their own net. After that, caution ruled for England, and then-manager Sven-Goran Eriksson was surely happier with the points than with the performance in Frankfurt.
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A better afternoon followed against overmatched Trinidad and Tobago, then came a draw with Sweden as England did advance out of group play in Germany. Back in 2002, England's 1-1 opening-match draw with Sweden was panned back home before a massive 1-0 win over Argentina put second-round aspirations back on solid footing. The United States and England last met in May 2008; Capello's men had a relatively easy afternoon in a 2-0 win at refurbished Wembley. Of course, that was a friendly, played on friendly soil for the English. A neutral ground in the northern South African city of Rustenburg will provide a very different backdrop. "I think the game we play here will be different," Capello agreed as he spoke to ESPN's Jeremy Schaap on Friday from South Africa. Friday's draw removes even more of the element of mystery than expected; the U.S. roster will be stocked with players who play now or have previously earned their paychecks in England. That includes difference-making goalkeeper Tim Howard and mercurial attacker Clint Dempsey.
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Even the geographical concerns played out favorably for the United States, which will play all three matches in relative proximity in the northern venues. Bradley might not say so, but the formula seems clear: Aim for a draw against England, then find the necessary points against Algeria and Slovenia, the smallest nation (by population) in South Africa next summer. Slovenia and Algeria will present challenges, of course. Russia and its highly regarded manager, Guus Hiddink, will sit this one out as a result of Slovenia's win over the heavy favorites. And Algeria will travel to World Cup 2010 at the expense of favored Egypt. Still, all in all, there is a degree of hope now that didn't exist Friday morning. Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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