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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.

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.