US soccer team races to get fit for World Cup

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.

The American team is unlikely to find much solace in the fact that the English are having problems too, though they are largely self-inflicted and of the emotional variety. The national team has been engulfed in a soap opera since revelations that popular national team captain John Terry, a married man with 3-year-old twins, was having an affair with the girlfriend of his fellow England defender and close pal, Wayne Bridge.

One wouldn’t think a little sex and betrayal would roil a nation where that mix seems to be a staple. (And never mind BBC’s classic TV fare, “Footballers’ Wives.”) Still, it produced enough headlines as well as genuine distress that the English coach felt compelled to strip Terry of his captaincy. Any thoughts that it would simply blow over — stiff upper lip and that sort of emotional stoicism — disappeared when Bridge quit the English team, then refused to shake Terry’s tendered hand before a Premier League clash.

Bridge’s absence along with injuries to other veteran defenders raises the possibility that England will enter the World Cup with what could prove a fatal amount of inexperience along its back line. Also of concern is that Terry, usually a defensive rock, has appeared affected by the contretemps, though whether by his own actions or by his stinging loss of the captain’s armband is unclear. Of late he has been shaky for Chelsea, which has lost two of its last three League matches and its Champions League opener. And last week before England played Egypt match at Wembley Stadium, he was booed during introductions, though the fans’ rancor was soon quieted by a 3-1 victory.

Ironically, there were recent revelations that a similar infidelity problem may have played a part in America’s monumental flop at the 1998 World Cup in France, when the U.S. team finished 32nd among 32 teams. Former coach Steve Sampson revealed that he dumped team Captain John Harkes from the squad just two months before the World Cup because of his affair with teammate Eric Wynalda’s wife.

Still, it’s the health of the U.S. team rather than any lingering effects of any sex scandal that is critical to its upset dreams against the English. And even if the Americans lose to England, they could advance out of the first round with success against Slovenia and Algeria.

Recent American soccer history suggests that the England game will be pivotal. The U.S. team, despite qualifying for a sixth consecutive World Cup and its lofty #18 ranking in the world, remains inconsistent and a bit fragile mentally. In the last five World Cups, the opener has foreshadowed the team’s fate. Three times the U.S. got spanked by European powers in its opener and failed to win a single game. But in 1994, when the U.S. tied Switzerland, the team advanced to the second round. And in 2002, when it debuted by stunning Portugal 3-2, the Americans made it all the way to the quarterfinals.

A “Hail Britannia” evening on June 12 could portend a dispiriting, early exodus from South Africa and another four-year wait to demonstrate that America's soccer truly belongs on the same field with the world elite.