PRETORIA, South Africa -- From the moment the World Cup draw was announced back in December, the United States' opening game against England has been one that almost everyone, even neutrals, circled on their calendar. That the Three Lions are tabbed as heavy favorites matters little. For the U.S., the match is as an opportunity to recapture the spirit of 1950, when the U.S. delivered perhaps the biggest upset in World Cup history, beating England 1-0.
Can history repeat itself Saturday? It's possible, and there are some factors that appear to be working in the Americans' favor.
England has looked worse with each passing friendly that it has played. Gareth Barry's absence due to injury has resulted in the moving of Steven Gerrard, one of England's main attacking weapons, into the center of midfield, where his partnership with Frank Lampard has looked forced and uncomfortable for both players. Rio Ferdinand's knee injury has robbed England of perhaps its best defender as well as valuable leadership. Then there are the massive expectations that have been heaped on the England squad, especially after cruising through World Cup qualifying.
Yet despite all these perceived advantages, the U.S. knows it will have to play the perfect game (or something close to it) to get a result against England.
"When we look at any top-level game you need six, seven, eight guys to have really good nights," U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. "And the other guys need to have solid enough days. There's a lot that goes into winning big games, beating good teams. We've done that before, and we're just concentrating on doing all of those things now in training leading up to the game so that we're ready to go."
When the U.S. plays more talented sides, it typically clogs the middle and tries to hit its opponents on the counterattack. Turning this strategy into a winning formula is another matter, of course, requiring many pieces to fall into place. Ball possession, for starters. It's long been a weakness for this U.S. team, and while England will likely have an edge in possession, the U.S. needs to hang onto the ball long enough to free its best attacking players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.
Otherwise, the U.S. is just chasing the game.
But what the U.S. needs most of all is to get big games from goalkeeper Tim Howard and the rest of the American defense. Unfortunately, the back line just so happens to be the part of the lineup with the most question marks.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu -- who is almost eight months removed from knee surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon -- has yet to play a full match since returning to the field against the Czech Republic on May 25, and hasn't looked sharp when he has played. His replacement, Clarence Goodson, has logged just 14 caps and played in one World Cup qualifier. Carlos Bocanegra, perhaps the most consistent U.S. defender, is needed at left back. But he can't fill that position if Onyewu isn't fit.
If that lineup puzzle gives you a headache, thinking about how the U.S. will stop England striker Wayne Rooney should give you a migraine. Rooney is among the top 3 players in the world. Not only is he an adept passer and finisher, with a newfound ability to consistently head the ball into the back of the net, but he's also a pest away from goal. Rooney's penchant for dropping deep into midfield can twist defenses out of shape.
To contain Rooney, the U.S. will have to rely on positioning and communication.
"You need to be close enough to your teammates so that when [Rooney] comes off of you, the next guy knows he's there," Howard said. "If you have him, then you have him. But if you want the next guy to take him you have to open your mouth."
U.S. defender Jay DeMerit said, "Between the midfield block and the defending block, we have to try to condense the space so we don't give [Rooney] enough time to manipulate the game as much as he would like."
Another key to the match will be where England decides to line up Gerrard. The Liverpool midfielder has been at his best when given a free role on the left flank. But because England's holding midfielder, Garreth Barry, is out with injury, Capello might have to slot Gerrard in the center of midfield with Frank Lampard -- a pairing that has not worked well for the Three Lions in the past.
If Capello decides to free up Gerrard in his traditional attacking role, he could slide Michael Carrick or James Milner into the midfield role. But Carrick has had a poor second half of the season, and the jury's out as to whether Milner, an offensive-minded player, can work well as a holding midfielder.
The U.S. will also need to be mindful of the attacking forays of England fullbacks Glen Johnson and Ashley Cole. While Donovan and Dempsey are fairly interchangeable in terms of which side they play on, Donovan's pace makes him a better fit to track Cole.
The play of forward Robbie Findley could also help break down England's defenses. Findley's speed and diagonal runs may be enough to prevent England's fullbacks from venturing too far forward. This will ease the defensive burden on Donovan and Dempsey and free up space for the American duo to exploit.
And exploit it they must. The danger of the Americans' approach is that they'll spend so much time and energy defending that they'll have nothing left for the attacking side of the game. Avoiding this trap will require an aggressive mind-set in the right moments. It's not easy to pull off, but the U.S., galvanized by its run to the final of last summer's Confederations Cup, has exuded a quiet confidence since arriving in South Africa. The belief that a result can be achieved is evident.
"You can't live life in fear," Dempsey said. "You have to go out and take advantage of your opportunities and do something special. I think the guys here have that mentality, and we've got to make sure we show that."
If they do, the spirit of 1950 may burn even brighter.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the USA national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.