Setting: On June 11, South Africa will become the first host country from the African continent. The fifth match of this 2010 edition of the World Cup will be played the following day between England and The United States of America in the northwest city of Rustenburg at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium. Tickets have sold quickly for this match and surely the 44,000-plus capacity stadium will be abuzz with fans from both sides. The literal buzz heard will be coming from the many, many vuvuzelas .
Exposition : The English side, affectionately known as The Three Lions, will take on the American side for the tenth time in their history. Not surprisingly, England has dominated the previous nine matches by winning seven times. And, well, there's also that whole revolutionary thing in the eighteenth century.
Plot: Despite its affluent footballing history, England has arguably had more disappointment on the international level, although much of that could be accredited to its own lofty expectations. They failed to qualify for the 2008 UEFA European Championship. The fallout involved bringing in Italian manager Fabio Capello to turn their fortunes in time for this year's World Cup. But with the Americans serving as the only true threat in their 2010 group, the English have to be prepping for success during the knockout rounds.
On the other hand, the U.S side almost experienced a soccer renaissance of sorts during its 2009 Confederations Cup run in South Africa. They upset current European Champions and world's #1 Spain in the semifinals. Then they nearly pulled off another monumental upset in the championship match against perennial football power Brazil, in which the American's led 2-0 at the half (Brazil would eventually win 3-2). The national exposure of Bob Bradley's squad took a hit, however, when they lost to neighboring Mexico on American soil in an embarrassing 5-0 thrashing in the 2009 CONCACAF Gold Cup final.
England should be viewing this first match as its only challenge in the group stage; if not, at least their fans see it as easy . With American ambiguity toward national soccer restored, the "Yanks" may be able to rekindle its guerrilla tactics from its founding members to sneak up once again on the Brits and pull the upset. Only this time, the stakes are not nearly quite as high as the U.S. certainly could finish atop the other two group members, Algeria and Slovenia, and advance.
Narrative Hook: As many fans of both countries know, the only time England and USA met in a game that counted was the 1950 World Cup where the world witnessed one of the biggest upsets in football history. The U.S. team defeated heavily favored England 1-0 in its second match (Joe Gaetjens , a Haitian born player for the United States, is still revered in his native country for scoring the game's lone goal). The Americans would go on a long drought after their 1950 appearance. Meanwhile England continued its success on the international stage thereafter, winning their lone World championship in 1966. Most recently at the 2006 World Cup, the U.S. team finished at the bottom of its group while England was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Portugal.
But trouble can often ensue when you have two teams with such a dichotomy of expectations. England's international play is plagued by near misses and its fans have watched countries like Germany, France and Italy win both World Cups and European championships while England remains monogamous in its championship love life.
Conflict: The injury bug has bitten both sides, but perhaps more so the Americans who may be without talented striker Jozy Altidore, who suffered a mild ankle sprain and recently sat out the final friendly against Australia. Bradley has a number replacements to choose from, but few who can match the skill set of Altidore. This after another striker, Charlie Davies, broke his leg in late 2009 and subsequently left off of this World Cup roster.
England's conflict with injury comes has not only bitten its skill but its leadership as well. English captain Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the 2010 World Cup with a knee injury. He garners plenty of experience having participated in the last two FIFA World Cups. Steven Gerrard, an experienced England national player himself, will captain The Three Lions in Ferdinand's absence.
England's biggest question remains who will stand between the posts when they open up their 2010. Goal scoring threats like Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findlay and Eddson Buddle may find confidence with indecisiveness of the English goal keeping situation. David James brings the most experience though some English fans can recall some big game blunders on his part.
The U.S. side boasts many English Premier League players, but the least of their worries is who stands in the goal. Goal keeper Tim Howard will be tested frequently by the likes of Lampard, Gerrard, Terry and Rooney.
Resolution: Don't be fooled by what the coaches are saying; both of these teams have to be thrilled with their group draw. It would come as surprise if these two teams did not finish first and second and advance. This match will give either side the jump-start it needs to confidently compete in the knockout rounds.
Though the U.S. has played well under Bradley and has now seen some of its youth from the past qualifying stages now gain invaluable experience outside the States, Altidore's injury creates a void not easily replaced. Goal keeping questions aside, England comes prepared more experienced and talented throughout the pitch and should continue to thrive under Capello's guidance. Expect no revolutionary surprises here. England takes this opening match 3-1.