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US soccer team races to get fit for World Cup

First match against England is 3 months away, but players must heal broken bones and tendons.

U.S. soccer team midfielder Stuart Holden, left, vies with Michael Barrantes of Costa Rica during a 2010 World Cup qualifier at RFK Stadium in Washington, Oct. 14, 2009. Holden suffered a broken leg in a different match in March and may not be fully fit for the World Cup. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — American soccer fans were thrilled after the 2010 World Cup draw when the U.S. team lucked into a group with two apparently beatable opponents, Algeria and Slovenia. So try to imagine the elation in England, the fourth nation in that Group C, which — with the United States viewed as a lesser Slovenia — appears blessed with the closest thing to a walkover in the first round.

Still, the June 12 meeting of the mighty, if always underachieving, English and the upstart Americans looms as the most intriguing and anticipated match-up of the Cup’s first weekend.

For 60 years, since the last time the two nations met in the World Cup, the English have had to live with the memory of the biggest upset in tournament history. And the team intends to make fodder of the Yanks on a path to hoisting the Cup for the first time in almost a half century.

But eager anticipation on both sides of the pond no longer equates to a desire for the match’s hasty arrival. Indeed after four years of waiting for the two teams to make amends for disappointing performances at the 2006 World Cup, fans of both teams would be happy to push back this encounter a further week or even a month. Multiple setbacks for both squads — on and off the field — have made three months seem a rather pressing deadline to be ready for the rigors of World Cup competition.

The problems facing the American side are bigger and, given the team’s underdog status, far more daunting. “Snakebit” doesn’t do justice — there has to be some more lethal South African mammal that would tell the tale — to what has befallen the Yanks since their glorious upset of top-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup last summer.

Car accidents, severe knee injuries, broken legs have left the team battered and undermanned. When it took the field against powerful Netherlands last week, in what was the team’s last international exhibition until late May, a case could be made that there were more key players sidelined — three certain and several potential starters — than on the field. So when a vicious tackle wiped out Stuart Holden, the best American player for the first 30 minutes, nobody seemed surprised when the result was a broken leg.

Holden joins a M*A*S*H unit that includes Charley Davies, the big, speedy forward who had established himself as a vital offensive cog; Clint Dempsey, one of the team’s most experienced and versatile attackers who scored in three straight games during America’s surprising run to last summer’s Confederations Cup final; Oguchi Onyewu, the 6’4”, 210-pound stopper in central defense. Add steady defender Steve Cherundolo, midfielders Ricardo Clark and Benny Feilhaber and, now, Holden, and the thin red, white and blue line is in danger of snapping.

Like Holden’s, the injuries have not been minor. Davies suffered two leg fractures, a fractured elbow and internal injuries in an auto accident last October and is just on the verge of resuming conditioning. Onyewu suffered a ruptured patella tendon and hasn’t played a game in five months. Dempsey has been sidelined by a knee injury for two month. Most of the injured are in a race against time. While they insist they can be ready come June, there is a gulf between fit and game fit — and the U.S. team may be forced to live with that difference.