USA can't waste this golden opportunity

Martin Rogers

Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter at @mrogersyahoo

For the man who believes he is ready, the truest of tests holds no fear.

So it is thus for Bob Bradley and the United States, whose World Cup dates of destiny were inked on Friday and for whom the path to proving self-worth now has perfect clarity.

Bradley has always treated the 2010 World Cup as a four-year process building toward a mighty crescendo, rather than simply a month-long stab at glory. The head coach has also demanded to be judged on the final product of his work, rather than the learning curve he has taken his players through since the side bombed out of Germany 2006 with just one point from three games.

Now he will be, fairly and comprehensively.

With the way the enthralling events of the draw in Cape Town took place – where not a ball was kicked nor a tackle made, yet somehow drama worthy of an audience in the tens of millions was produced – the USA received an ideal outcome.

Group C is not the easiest in the tournament. Getting thrown in with host nation South Africa from Pot One instead of an in-form England would have offered the U.S. a greater shot at reaching the last 16. But the makeup of the opposition – England, Algeria, Slovenia – gives the American squad the one thing it truly wanted.

An opportunity.

USA fans want to believe that Bradley's men are a cut above second-tier European hopefuls like Slovenia or spirited-yet-experience-shy African teams like Algeria and are knocking on the door of the elite.

Well, here it is: the time to step forward and prove it.

"I like the fact that people will be expecting big things of us," said U.S. forward Landon Donovan, whose reputation hinges on the USA's performance in South Africa more than any other squad member. "We believe it is a group we can qualify from and all our thoughts will be focused on that first game against England."

Forget what happened at the Confederations Cup, which saw the U.S. overcome a dreadful opening week with a remarkable revival that included a storied triumph over European champion Spain in the semifinals. Three games, in three different cities in this vibrant and intriguing host nation, over 12 days next summer will tell us everything we need to know about Bradley's team and its true worth.

It is no longer about potential or positive signs or moving in the right direction. Now it is just about results. There can be no excuses, no hiding behind the shield of a "Group of Death" and poisoned fortune, should the USA fail to get to the knockout stage.

An early exit would be a failure and a waste and a backward step for American soccer, plain and simple. If the USA wants and needs to be taken seriously by respected opponents, then it must deliver. That means putting up a better fight against England than it did when the teams met in a friendly at London's Wembley Stadium last year, qualifying from Group C and then boldly facing whatever challenges arise in the last 16.

"It is a great way to start," said Bradley, referring to the clash with England in Rustenburg on June 12, the second day of the tournament. "This group gives us a fair chance and that is all you can ask for from the draw."

The USA's second fixture is against Slovenia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 18, a clash which many believe will determine second place in the group. A victory would almost certainly give Bradley's side the chance to clinch progress to the knockout stage with a win over Algeria in the final group game on June 23.

So there it is, opportunity knocks and destiny awaits. The gods of fortune have extended a firm hand to the USA, now they have to grasp it.