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England game one of the most highly anticipated in U.S. history

PRETORIA, South Africa -- England wants desperately to win another World Cup, and whispers from inside and out of the Three Lions camp says this mix has the talent, the right coach and the pluck to stitch it all together -- never mind those recent friendlies that landed somewhere between unconvincing and alarming.

The United States carries far more humble ambitions into South Africa 2010, intent on escaping the first round and seeing what might happen from there.

Either way, the disparate bids begin jointly on Saturday in what may be the most highly anticipated soccer match in U.S. history. The air will be a bit thin and the tension dreadfully thick at Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium, where coach Bob Bradley will do well to dodge a sluggish World Cup start like the one that was so toxic at Germany 2006.

"It's going to be pretty incredible," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said Thursday. "I don't know what's going to be better, back home at the bar watching it with my friends or actually playing in it. I think it's going to be special. They're going to be kicking at every ball, I've heard from so many of my friends and family back home.

"I really think our country is going to stop, I really do. I think our country is going to stop and watch and see if we get a result. It's a lot of pressure, but it's also pretty cool to see how far we've come."

For both teams, the opportunity is clear and the motivation is simple: A win in the opener points the entire South African adventure in the right direction. It vents pressure helpfully and gives everyone a big boost in the five days before the next test. A loss doesn't equal colossal failure, especially as more manageable opposition may lie ahead. But it would add weight to an already pressurized environment and reduce the margin for error going forward.

That's normal in any World Cup opener; it will be the same for 30 other World Cup qualifiers in South Africa.

But the U.S.-England match is thick with evocative subplots, starting with the countries' political ties and shared bonds in the sport. It's the "old money" of England versus a side that not so long ago was "the help," a nation still reaching for nouveau riche status. Plus, the English imprint on American soccer is massive. So many of the early teachers, coaches and pioneers of U.S. soccer were imports from the British Isles.

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati on Wednesday said he believed the level of Stateside interest was unprecedented for an international soccer match. "Partly because of who we're playing, partly because of where the game is in the United States, and frankly partly because of the promotion on television in Spanish and English," he said. "There will be a lot of people watching this game on Saturday, and it's one of the opportunities we don't get very often."

There are player links, too. Two of the American difference makers, Howard and Clint Dempsey, play professionally in England. And Landon Donovan, the invaluable American attacker, sensationally earned Great Britain's respect during a 10-week winter loan to Everton.

All that said, U.S. players are quick to remind that the World Cup first round is three matches, not just one.

"I understand how much has been put on this game and what it means, I definitely do, but there's more to it," said Donovan, who has declared himself more mentally and physically prepared than four years ago during the deflated Germany 2006 campaign. "We have to be ready to react no matter what happens [Saturday]. In the Confederations Cup last year, we thought we were out after two games, then we played a great game against Egypt and it changed everything."

On the subject of "changing everything," referees can and have done so at a World Cup. So yet another talking point on Saturday's match was created when FIFA selected Brazilian referee Carlos Simon to officiate. This is Simon's third World Cup (he also refereed England's opener in 2002), but controversy has sullied his reputation lately. He was suspended for six weeks from Brazilian soccer last year amid accusations of bribery and incompetence. One Brazilian team official openly labeled Simon a "crook and a scoundrel."

That's just an opinion. But there is hard data to show that he doesn't mind waving cards. Simon refereed three games in 2006, showing 17 yellow cards and one red.

Added to the volatile mix is that referees in South Africa may not ignore or pretend not to hear the swearing directed at them -- a cascade of cursing that has become endemic in some soccer corners. England does have some history of disciplinary indiscretion in World Cups; David Beckham was famously sent off in 1998, while England's entire campaign was compromised four years ago when Wayne Rooney crunched a Portuguese player's privates in a quarterfinal match.

Otherwise, the Three Lions appear confident. Few would challenge coach Fabio Capello's tactical proficiency, and the cool South African winter will have England feeling right at home. While injuries have sliced away some of England's edge in talent, Rooney and Steven Gerrard, the cornerstones of the team's attack, are fit and motivated.

"I just can't wait now," Rooney said this week. "The sooner it comes, the better."

While the British press bangs on about Rooney's notoriously foul mouth and how it could undermine England's bid, perhaps it is the Americans who need to worry about Simon's propensity for reaching into the pocket. History has taught us that American players rarely gain the benefit of the doubt in global soccer. Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope were sent off four years ago, while Oguchi Onyewu conceded a killer penalty kick against Ghana on the most benign of penalty-area bumps. And inside the American camp, there is still some grousing and grumbling about a couple of the cautions handed out to Bradley's boys at last year's Confederations Cup.

In terms of tactics and selections, both sides have gaps to fill and questions to answer. Plenty, in fact. Capello appeared to have settled on a 4-2-3-1 arrangement -- a bit of an odd duck around English football, which traditionally worships at the altar of the 4-4-2. Recent injuries may convince him that 4-4-2 is the way forward, however.

Either way, success for England may be down to getting the most from important midfielders Gerrard and Frank Lampard; other managers have famously failed to pair them successfully. Capello must pick a replacement for injured center back Rio Ferdinand and the best way to enhance Rooney's offerings at striker. Plus, the England coach also has a goalkeeper conundrum to sort out.

As for Bradley, he could go in multiple directions in multiple places. Essentially, the same questions that have been asked for weeks (or months in some cases) still need resolution. Will center back Onyewu be ready? Or Jozy Altidore (sprained ankle), for that matter? Who will partner with Michael Bradley in the middle? Where will Dempsey play? And which of the four candidates at forward will the coach choose to deploy?

All that, and he still has to worry about Rooney, one of the top marksmen here. They sound ready, at least.

"The mentality is good," Howard said. "You get tired of training. Tired of kicking each other. We've been together, like, forever. This is everything you've dreamed of, everything that everyone has been talking about. We're ready to see what we're made of. All the talk is over, or soon will be over. We're excited for that."

Editor's note: Georgina Turner will be providing live game analysis on SI.com for all of the U.S. team's matches in the World Cup.

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