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The World’s BIGGEST Sporting Event

After four years and hundreds of games, 32 soccer teams will battle for the championship of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa
Noah Davis
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

(continued from page 2)

The U.S. isn't favored to win, but they've showed they can compete with the world's best sides. "We'll have to play the same style of play we used against Spain, we need to stay compact defensively and hit them on the counter," midfielder Clint Dempsey said after the draw announcing the groups. "Hopefully we can be confident and take the game to them a little bit." Algeria and Slovenia round out the group, a much easier foursome than 2006's "Group of Death," from which the team failed to advance.

The increased expectations stem from two factors: a growing level of talent and the team's success on the international stage. The U.S. formation is filled with players finding time at some of the biggest clubs in the world including goalie Tim Howard (Everton), centerback Oguchi Onyewu (A.C. Milan) and Dempsey (Fulham).

Landon Donovan, the American's all-time leading scorer and arguably the best field player to wear red, white, and blue, demonstrated his talents to the world in a successful stint with English Premier League side Everton. Although defender Carlos Bocanegra wears the captain's armband, Donovan provides the face of the U.S. squad. The 28-year-old announced his presence on the world stage during the American's quarterfinal run during 2002 World Cup, and he's improved steadily.

"He's grown as a player, just like most good players do," says Brian McBride, the striker whose scoring record Donovan broke. "For him, he's also grown as a person. I think those things have transitioned to him understanding what he wants better. It's made him a better player. That definitely is a great thing for U.S. Soccer in general and I think it's great for a team going to the World Cup."

But the squad has injury problems. Dempsey and Onyewu suffered knee injuries but should return in time for the World Cup. Charlie Davies nearly died in an October car accident and doctors wondered if he would walk again, much less play. The emerging star striker has staged a miraculous recovery from a broken leg, multiple facial fractures and a lacerated bladder, but at press time his participation in June remained undetermined.

Under manager Bob Bradley, who's posted winning records in each of his three seasons in charge, the squad enjoyed their most successful year ever in '09. The Americans finished first in their qualifying group-providing more fuel to the argument that they are the top dog in North and Central America - and reached the final of the Confed Cup, the first time they've played in the championship match of a FIFA tournament. The U.S. led Brazil by two goals before succumbing to the talented Samba Boys 3-2, but gained respect with the strong showing and the impressive defeat of Spain. The Stars and Stripes will be overlooked no more.

The growth of soccer in the United States isn't just about the players. It's also about the fans. Thousands traveled to Germany in support of the team during the last World Cup, and FIFA reports that Americans have purchased more tickets to the '10 edition than any country other than South Africa. "It's almost as if we had these sleeper cells and they've been dormant for many years and the word has come down over the past couple years to awaken and rise," Lalas says of the U.S. fanbase. "They are coming out of the woodwork. It's a fun time to be a soccer fan."

Tens of thousands will flock from the States, but millions more will watch on television. In 2002, 70 million different individuals watched at least one minute of coverage and that figure jumped to 98 million four years later. Executives at ESPN and ABC expect 2010's broadcast numbers to significantly outstrip those of '06, as they commit unprecedented resources towards televising the games.

All 64 fixtures will be available on the family of networks, with 30-minute pregame shows and postgame wrap-ups accompanying each match. The network plans to air a two-hour "World Cup Primetime" nightly and show 25 games on a new ESPN 3D channel. Broadcasters and commentators include Alexi Lalas, Martin Tyler (considered to be the best soccer play-by-play man on the planet), former U.S. captain John Harkes, former Netherlands star and Los Angeles Galaxy manager Ruud Gullit, World Cup winner Mario Kempes and others.

The viewing audience will notice a distinctly South African feel to the coverage. "We're trying to be as authentic as we can with our broadcasts of the games and we feel we need full, half-hour pregame shows before every kick to get to all the pomp and circumstance in all of the games and give the American audience the true feel of what being at a game is like," says Bill Graff, senior coordinating producer at ESPN who oversaw the coverage in 1998, 2002, and will do so in 2010. "Our goal for the broadcasts is to bring both the culture of South Africa and the meaning and the activities behind the games in South Africa back home to the American fans."

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