American World Cup soccer fans drawn to South Africa
U.S. still uninterested compared to other soccer-crazed nations, but South Africa's World Cup has caught attention
While nobody would claim that the American national team is the envy of others, it does get to compete with less pressure than probably any other team in the World Cup.
There may be youth soccer frenzy in the United States and even the beginnings of a sophisticated soccer culture here. But the vast majority of Americans can't name two players on the national team and — with baseball season in full stride and the NBA playoffs climaxing — won't be heartbroken if the squad flops in South Africa.
Still, thanks to ESPN's relentless promotion, U.S. sports fans are well aware the Cup is coming. And Americans love a pageant. Turns out more game tickets have been sold to U.S. residents than to any other nationality outside South Africa. If the team shows a spark and produces some success, the U.S. will deliver a good impersonation of a soccer nation for a week or two.
U.S. World Cup History: The U.S. is one of only seven nation to have qualified for the last six World Cups, more a reflection of its weak region than its soccer prowess. America boasts the greatest Cup upset ever — U.S. 1 England 0 back in 1950; still, the best effort was in 2002 when it outplayed Germany in the quarters, but lost a 1-0 heartbreaker.
U.S. World Cup Schedule: June 12 - England; June 18 - Slovenia; June 23 - Algeria.
U.S. World Cup Conventional Wisdom: The U.S. got a dream draw, including, arguably, the weakest teams from both Europe and Africa. With the U.S. team steadily improving, it will be expected to reach the second round. But the Americans don't have the talent to assure victory over anyone and could just as easily, as in three of its five previous Cup appearances, exit after the first round.
U.S. World Cup Team Coach: Bob Bradley
Bradley was nobody's first choice to take the helm after the roller-coaster ride that was Bruce Arena's tenure. But when no international giant answered the call, Bradley, who had steered the team to some impressive results as interim coach, was rewarded with the gig. (His son, Michael, anchors the midfield.)
He is reserved, steady and keeps his opinions private, a decided counterpoint to Arena who didn't hesitate to call out his players publicly. Still, he hasn't found a way to combat the team's galling inconsistencies. At last year's Confederations Cup in South Africa, the U.S. was humiliated by Italy and Brazil, then came back to stun world #1 Spain and almost beat Brazil for the title. Go figure.
U.S. World Cup Team Strength: The U.S. team has always boasted outstanding goalkeeping — the American position with its emphasis on hands — and Tim Howard is no exception. To boot, while the team may not rank among the most skilled, it is always among the most fit. That could prove critical since all three of its first-round games will be played at more than 4,200 feet above sea level.
U.S. World Cup Team Weakness: The Americans lack a striker who actually strikes fear in opponents and rarely score off the run of play. Reliance on set plays can prove futile against strong defensive teams. Also, its physical style has too often proved undisciplined and produced fatal, red-card expulsions in key contests.
U.S. World Cup Key player: Landon Donovan
If the team has to rely on set plays, it at least has a highly skilled player in the diminutive Donovan who can deliver the ball into a threatening position. He is also nerveless from the penalty spot. On the field, Donovan will be — whether in the center of the field or on the wing — the linchpin of the attack and a likely target of roughhouse, defensive tactics. His and America's success may depend on how well he can connect with Clint Dempsey. Dempsey can disappear for long stretches of the game, but is a canny opportunist and the rare Yank with a flair for putting the ball in the net.
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.