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The moment is here

by Ronald Blum
| June 12, 2010 9:00 PM

Eyes will be on American soccer in World Cup opener

IRENE, South Africa - The bars are stocked across America, and the pubs are getting ready in England. A 70 1/2-foot billboard of Clint Dempsey stands near Penn Station in Manhattan, and there's even a large poster of Landon Donovan in a store along Piccadilly Circus.

American soccer has never been more popular in the United States or its players more well-known across the world. And today comes the first competitive match between the U.S. and England since the great American upset at the 1950 World Cup. For one afternoon, millions will be watching from California to New York island. Like never before in the United States, this is the sport's moment.

"I don't know what's going to be better, at the bar with my friends back home watching it, or actually playing it, because it's going to be special," goalkeeper Tim Howard said Thursday.

On the first cloudy day since the U.S. team started workouts June 1, the Americans practiced in Pretoria. Then their red-white-and-blue bus with "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Victory!" on the side made the two-hour drive to Rustenburg, where the big game will be played.

Thousands of tickets in refurbished 38,646-capacity Royal Bafokeng Stadium were purchased back in the United States for the match at the foot of the Magaliesberg mountain range in the North West Province. Stevan Galich, a fan from Chicago, organized transportation for 350 American fans from Sandton, a north Johannesburg suburb, to Rustenburg on Saturday. His party plans to meet outside the stadium with Sam's Army and the American Outlaws, two supporters' groups. They hope to offset the roar from English fans who usually travel with their team in large numbers.

Donald Gips, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa, said Sunday that FIFA estimated 132,000 tickets for the 64-game tournament were bought in the United States, the most in any nation outside the host.

"Certainly the water cooler talk, if I can use that expression, is greater than anything I've seen around the World Cup, around the U.S. being in it, and certainly around the U.S.-England game for sure," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. "The amount of time we're getting on ESPN. The cover of SI. The cover of ESPN The Magazine. The cover of Time Magazine. Anybody remember when that last happened for soccer?"

The Irish Pub, a few blocks from Carnegie Hall in Manhattan, is packed many weekend mornings for English Premier League games. Last month, it doubled in size in preparation for the World Cup.

Youth soccer teams are planning to meet to watch together, and several Major League Soccer stadiums will open for viewing parties.

Adidas, Nike and Puma have been busy selling World Cup gear. More than 55,000 fans went to Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field for the U.S. team's sendoff game on May 29.

Interest ratcheted up last June when the Americans upset Spain in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, a World Cup warmup tournament in South Africa. The Americans ended the European champion's streaks of 15 wins and 35 unbeaten games.

The December draw boosted it even more when the United States was matched up with England to get things started.

It's far different from 1990, when the U.S. team returned to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years and few American fans made the trek to Italy. There wasn't much to root for, with the U.S. losing three straight games.

"We thought we knew what the World Cup was. And you know what? Reality slapped us right in the face," said Marcelo Balboa, a defender on that U.S. team who is covering this tournament for the radio network Futbol de Primera. "Soccer has just grown so much. Look at where we're at now, and look at where we stood in '90?"

And with growth comes responsibility. When the U.S. went 0-3 at the 1998 World Cup in France and finished last in the 32-nation field, the blowout created turmoil in the American soccer community. But it hardly got a rise out of most U.S. sports fans.

Following a run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, where the U.S. opened with a 3-2 upset of Portugal and beat Mexico 2-0 in the second round, there were great expectations for the 2006 tournament. But the team had another 0-3 flop.

Reaching the final eight was the best finish for the United States since it advanced to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930. Playing England, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry, is a chance for American players to measure themselves against some of the best and most celebrated players.

Nine of the 23 players on the U.S. roster were with English clubs last season, including Donovan during a three-month loan, so the teams know each other well. And the supporters have a fairly good knowledge, too. That's why this match has captured public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I think the cultures are similar, which is probably the biggest reason why," said American forward Jozy Altidore, who spent last season at Hull.

While the U.S. is 2-7 in head-to-head-matchups, eight of those were exhibitions. The only one that really counted was the meeting in the 1950 World Cup, won famously 1-0 on Joe Gaetjens' goal in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

That's considered one of the great upsets in sports history.

So from Rustenburg to Raleigh to Rotherham, eyes will be focused on the match.

"I know the people back home are just, they're going to be kicking every ball. I've heard so many stories from family members and friends," Howard said. "I think our country is going to stop, man. I really do. I think everyone is going to stop and be watching, have one eye on the result. And it's a lot of pressure, but it's also pretty cool to see how far we've come."