“The first game in a group is always a big game,” injured English star David Beckham told me just before the World Cup. “It kind of sets the tone for the tournament. The manager always says so— and I’ve played in a few tournaments now—they are always so ready for that first game.” And England’s first game in Group C of the World Cup’s opening round is against the United State. A draw or win for the Americans will ease the path to the last 16, taking a little pressure off the games against Slovenia and Algeria that follow. A win for England means the baying mob of the English media, which expects nothing less than winning the World Cup, will shut up for oh, five minutes. “The expectations on our team are huge. And rightly so in many ways,” Beckham told me. “Because we’ve got one of the best football leagues in the world if not the best and we’ve got some of the best players in the world playing in this sport.”
That means the first goal is even more important. The U.S. team’s 2006 World Cup ended approximately five minutes into its first game against the Czech Republic. That’s when the giant Czech frontman Jan Koller rose high to head in a goal following one of the Czechs’ initial counterattack. The Americans went on to lose the game, 3-0, and although they took a point with a crazy, courageous 1-1 draw against eventual champions Italy, their need for a win against Ghana was too much of an ask. The Yanks lost 2-1 thanks to one of those dubious penalties that often decide matches. “I’m still trying to find the foul,” noted defend Oguchi Onyewu, who was the victim of the call.
The Americans will have find “something special” in the words of U.S. star Landon Donovan—a teammate of Beckham on the Los Angeles Galaxy— to overcome a very good but not great English team. This American squad is better than the 2006 version, but younger. “There’s less experience in these kind of games, but this team has more talent than any team I’ve been on,” says Donovan. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we cope with that.”
The U.S. will have everything to do just to grab a point. England is a bit wobbly in the center of its defense, with Rio Ferdinand out, and John Terry, its one-man soap opera, not having his best season. But up front, England does have Wayne Rooney, who is having his best season. The potty-mouthed Rooney is an all purpose striker who can create scoring chances from anywhere; he passes well, checks back on defense and runs all day and night. Supporting Rooney will be either the beanpole, 6’ 7” Peter Crouch, or burly Emile Heskey. In the middle is Frank Lampard, who possesses perhaps the most precise soccer GPS on the planet, and Steven Gerrard who doesn’t, but is capable of brilliant improvisational play. England’s problem has been getting the two to click.
The U.S. also has some puzzles to solve. Who will play along with Jozy Altidore up front? Can Onyewu, who has recovered from a devastating knee injury, hold up under the high pressure that England is likely to bring? Can the anyone hold off Rooney? “The goal with them is to be very organized defensively,” says Donovan. “At the end of the day we need to prevent them from making big plays.”
Beckham is wary too, for other reasons. “People are going to see the U.S. as underdogs but that’s a dangerous thing to have. We as a team and we as a nation going into this game will not be taking any player or anyone in this team lightly because we know it’s a potential banana skin.” It’s the first game; no one wants to slip up.