Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo
From the moment the guy in the suit standing next to Charlize Theron unfurled the bits of paper that dictated the United States' World Cup destiny, optimism and expectation surrounding the men's national team has been at an all-time high.
After being stuck in the Group of Death in the 2006 tournament and one of the toughest groups four years earlier, the draw earlier this month finally saw the World Cup's gods of chance smile upon the USA. Instantly, the American soccer community burst into life. There were scenes of celebration at soccer pubs and bars around the country, and tickets to South Africa were snapped up at a record rate.
Bruce Arena cracked a wry smile as he watched the progress unfold on television. As the U.S. head coach during the past two World Cups, he knew all too well just how big a bullet his predecessor Bob Bradley had dodged.
But while Arena, now in charge of the Los Angeles Galaxy, would have given his right arm for a group like that handed to Bradley – with matchups against England, Algeria and Slovenia – he was swift to sound a note of caution.
"Let me forewarn everyone," Arena said in an interview with Yahoo! Sports. "The draw is one thing, but there is a reason why we actually play the games.
"Let's not get overconfident. Let's not write the USA into the elimination rounds already. They still have to get it done."
Back in 2002, Arena's U.S. side survived meetings with eventual semifinalist and co-host South Korea, Portugal and Poland to reach the quarterfinals before losing to Germany. Next time around, the Americans were not so fortunate, heading home in disappointment after claiming just one point from three games against the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana.
Things could have been a whole lot worse for Bradley, as evidenced by the unfortunate plight suffered by North Korea, which was positioned with Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast. Instead, Algeria and Slovenia were widely considered to be among the weakest teams in their pot, with England the strong favorite to top the group.
"It was a great draw, no doubt about it," Arena said. "But I have to stress that it doesn't mean as much as people think. Every World Cup you see teams come from nowhere and to create surprises. How often does it really go with the form guide?
"This is an opportunity, but the team still has to go out there and play to its potential."
Group C watch
England – Boss Fabio Capello has told David Beckham that he will definitely be on the squad for South Africa, provided he remains healthy.
Algeria – Head coach Rabah Saadane has dropped Hull City's Kamel Ghilas from the squad for the African Cup of Nations.
Slovenia – Midfielder Robert Koren will be allowed to leave West Bromwich Albion in January, as he seeks regular playing time in order to cement his World Cup spot.
Italy star Luca Toni is delighted to be leaving Bayern Munich for Roma in Serie A, a switch that should guarantee him a place in Marcello Lippi's World Cup plans.
Newly released figures show the overall cost for building and improving South Africa's stadiums for the World Cup has escalated to $1.7 billion from an original prediction of $390 million.
World Cup numerology
162 – The number of English Premier League goals Andy Cole scored before eventually being selected for England. Cole would go on to bag 187 EPL goals during his career and is one of the most prolific scorers never to appear in a World Cup.
Put it on your calendar
Jan. 11 – USA fans hoping to secure tickets to the three group games have until this date to apply to U.S. Soccer.
How are Gooch and Charlie?
Two of the USA's most popular players, Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, are both on the road to recovery from serious injuries. We'll keep you posted with their progress and chances of making it to the tournament.
Onyewu update – Gooch's patella is on the mend and he is expected to be back in training with AC Milan in March. It is hoped he can get some match action under his belt before the end of the season. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 80 percent.
Davies update – In the words of the man himself: "I'm truly blessed to have survived and have people that care. I'm doing much better and I'm able to walk. Rehab is going very well." However, there is still a long way to go before the effects of the fatal car crash Davies survived in October can be shaken off. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 5 percent.
- South Africa