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And with growth comes responsibility. When the U.S. went 0-3 at the 1998 World Cup in France and finished last in the 32-nation field, the blowout created turmoil in the American soccer community. But it hardly got a rise out of most U.S. sports fans.
Following a run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, where the U.S. opened with a 3-2 upset of Portugal and beat Mexico 2-0 in the second round, there were great expectations for the 2006 tournament. But the team had another winless flop (0-2-1).
Reaching the final eight was the best finish for the United States since it advanced to the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930. Playing England, with Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and John Terry, is a chance for American players to measure themselves against some of the best and most celebrated players.
Nine of the 23 players on the U.S. roster were with English clubs last season, including Donovan during a three-month loan, so the teams know each other well. And the supporters have a fairly good knowledge, too. That's why this match has captured public imagination on both sides of the Atlantic.
"I think the cultures are similar, which is probably the biggest reason why," said American forward Jozy Altidore, who spent last season at Hull.
While the U.S. is 2-7 in head-to-head-matchups, eight of those were exhibitions. The only one that really counted was the meeting in the 1950 World Cup, won famously 1-0 on Joe Gaetjens' goal in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
That's considered one of the great upsets in sports history.
So from Rustenburg to Raleigh to Rotherham, eyes will be focused on the match.
"I know the people back home are just, they're going to be kicking every ball. I've heard so many stories from family members and friends," Howard said. "I think our country is going to stop, man. I really do. I think everyone is going to stop and be watching, have one eye on the result. And it's a lot of pressure, but it's also pretty cool to see how far we've come."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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