In spite of its top 20 FIFA world ranking (14th), its continued dominance in World Cup qualifying in the CONCACAF region, and an improbable run to the finals of the Confederations Cup last June, the U.S. is still not regarded as a serious threat.
"We know we are a good team and a dangerous team, and I have a lot of confidence in the fact that this group will show that in South Africa," said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who doubles as team captain. "Every year, the continual rise of our sport in this country is apparent, from our professional leagues down to our youth teams. Every time you have the chance to play for your country, it's just another opportunity to show how much you have evolved and how much more seriously you need to be taken."
No truer test comes in England, a team with which the U.S. has a history steeped in memorable moment after moment. From Joe Gaetjens' unforgettable goal in 1950 to Alexi Lalas' header in Boston on the eve of World Cup '94, few teams don the annals of U.S. lore like the Brits.
But to win Saturday (2:30, ABC), it's going to take the collective efforts of a healthy U.S. contingent, which now is not the case. As much as he likes to tell the media all is well, there is a reason center back Oguchi Onyewu hasn't played a full 90 minutes since Oct. 10, 4 days before tearing tendons in his left knee. Onyewu was injured during the final qualifier in Washington against Costa Rica.
Jozy Altidore, the 20-year-old forward who became a sensation following the Confederations Cup, is nursing an ankle injury and returned to full training earlier this week.
The nucleus of Bocanegra, forward Clint Dempsey and top scorer Landon Donovan (42 goals in 123 appearances) must remain in good health.
Also, perhaps the one key to the Americans' success not just against England, but in emerging from group play is the fortitude of goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Howard sat and watched from the bench in 2006 as the United States played whipping boy to the Czech Republic, Ghana and eventual champion Italy.
Howard, at the time the third-string goalkeeper behind Brad Friedel and backup Marcus Hahnemann, could only wonder what might have been, and if his efforts might have extended the U.S.' stay in Germany for longer than 10 days.
Howard, 31, has that chance starting Saturday. In the 4 years since that time in Germany, the evolution of the 6-3, 210-pound native of North Brunswick, N.J., has been anything but paltry. Since arriving to English Premier League side Everton on loan, Howard has asserted himself as one of the top keepers on the planet, but even before that as the starter for Manchester United, where he won EPL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2004.
"Tim was destined to be a big-timer," current Union CEO and managing partner Nick Sakiewicz said. Sakiewicz was the general manager of the MLS' New York/New Jersey MetroStars from 2000-05 and brokered a deal that sent a 23-year-old Howard to Manchester for an estimated $4.2 million plus incentives.
"We had Tim since he was 17 in our youth reserve system, and we knew with his talent we had to sign him to a max deal [which at the time was a 5-year MLS contract worth roughly $250,000 per year]. A year later, United came knocking and we knew it was only a matter of time. He is one of the best professionals I have ever known on the field and off, and it's no surprise to me that he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He truly is one man this team can't afford to be without if there is to be any success in South Africa."
Despite his calm, unassuming demeanor, Howard thrives on intensity. It's helped carry him to this point in his career and to the sense of security his teammates rely on. He anchors the last line of defense with all the bravado that only an athlete with a tremendous mix of humility and confidence can carry.
"You always know having that safety net behind you that if you do make a mistake, Tim is going to be there," said midfielder Stuart Holden. "He is extremely important; we are talking about a mainstay with the national team. Sometimes if the team is not doing as well as we'd like, Tim makes one or two saves that really helps to pick the team up. He provides extra motivation, just by being on the field."
As for Howard:
"I like pressure. I always try and keep my standards as high as possible so that when outside influences are there I can respond and react accordingly," he said. "I know my job on this team and so that ends up becoming my foundation and ultimately what I am about. I don't feel any added pressure more that what I put on myself going into the tournament. This is where I kind of expected to be [at this point in my career]. I am fortunate to be here and it's kind of the coming together of a lifelong dream for me. Without any arrogance it was an expectation for me to be in this position. It was always something I have strived for and hoped to do, and now . . . here I am."
For Howard and his teammates, but more importantly the U.S. Soccer Federation, a shot at absolution 4 years in the making begins Saturday in Rustenburg, South Africa.