The Group C team to fear: USA?

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo

Words are cheap in international soccer, where goals remain the only currency that means anything.

Yet as the United States prepares for its sixth straight appearance in the World Cup finals, it is impossible to ignore the seismic change in the way Team USA is regarded around the round-ball universe.

The U.S. side is no longer dismissed as an international afterthought. Its performances, especially in recent times under Bob Bradley, have afforded a newfound level of respect. Perhaps the most compelling proof of that improved status came this week, when Slovenia coach Matjaz Kek insisted that his team's clash against Bradley's men will be their most "dangerous" of the opening round.

Given that Group C also features England – one of the favorites to win the whole thing – that is quite a statement and one which American soccer can be rightfully, if cautiously, proud of.

Now just to be clear, Kek is not saying that the United States is better than England. He's simply pointing out that the Americans' efforts have shown them to be an opponent no one can afford to underestimate.

"For us, it could be that the USA game is the most dangerous," Kek said. "For the first game [against Algeria], all the players are of course going to be highly motivated. It is the beginning of the tournament, it is exciting. It is the moment they have waited for.

"The England game is also huge. Nobody needs any motivation to play against such a strong and famous team. But we have to be at our best in every game, and we must be very serious and focused against the USA.

"They are tough and strong and have beaten some great teams. It is the kind of team that if you are one percent below your best, they will exploit your weakness because they work so hard."

Slovenia and the Team USA meet at Johannesburg's Ellis Park on June 18 in the second game of the tournament for both teams. For the Americans, it could turn out to be a do-or-die encounter if their opening match against England ends with an expected defeat.

The Slovenians do not boast any superstars, but they are a rugged and committed bunch who sent Russia crashing out in Europe's World Cup qualifying playoffs.

"We don't need anyone to tell us how tough they are," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "People can say what they like about it being a good group or an easy group; we are not thinking of it that way.

"Any team that goes out there and beats Russia deserves respect, and they will have our respect. We have big ambitions and expect a lot of ourselves, but one thing we don't expect is an easy ride."

For the United States, reaching at least the round of 16 is a must. Clint Dempsey acknowledged as much this week when he said that "anything less would be a failure."

All the public focus is on that enthralling first clash against England on June 12. But if Team USA is to achieve its goals and maximize its potential, it could be the showdown six days later which decides its fate.

Group C watch

• England – Fans of the national team have been angered by plans to play some future qualifying games on Fridays, making it harder for supporters from outside London to attend.

• Algeria – Portsmouth left back Nadir Belhadj has been ruled out of action for up to a month with a thigh injury, effectively killing off a potential transfer to CSKA Moscow.

• Slovenia – Captain Robert Koren is still at odds with West Bromwich Albion boss Roberto Di Matteo but has kept his place in the side after a string of spectacular long-range goals.

Smiles

David Beckham could be playing a major role at the World Cup after all – with tournament organizers keen to offer him an ambassadorial role in South Africa.

Tears

There is only one way that Sven-Goran Eriksson's tenure with the Ivory Coast is going to end – in disappointment. The team has plenty of world-class quality, but it has simply appointed the wrong man. Eriksson's limitations have been exposed, time and again.

World Cup numerology

73 – The minute in which Tom Boyd scored an own goal against Brazil in the 1998 World Cup, denying Scotland a famous draw against the reigning world champion.

The walking wounded

• Oguchi Onyewu – There hasn't been much recent news on Onyewu, and that is probably a good thing. Knee damage is a tricky beast, but Gooch should be back in time for the trip to South Africa. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 90 percent.

• Charlie Davies – He's back in training at Sochaux, and things continue to look up for him as he tries to complete a remarkable comeback. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 50 percent.

• Stuart Holden – The Bolton midfielder has had the cast on his broken leg removed and recovery is going smoothly. Likelihood of World Cup selection: 90 percent.

Put it on your calendar

May 12: It's the initial date for World Cup squad selections to be made. A finalized roster needs to be handed to FIFA officials on June 10.

What to Read Next