When USA and England step out at the Tianjin Olympic Center Stadium on Saturday night, it will be the first time the two countries have met on the world stage. For USA forward Heather O'Reilly, however, taking the field with some of the England players will feel just like old times.
After all, O'Reilly is a former team-mate of England trio Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Rachel Unitt, all of whom spent summer seasons with her old club side New Jersey Wildcats. Consequently, when the 22-year-old talks about England having "world-class players", it is safe to assume this is more than the usual pre-match diplomacy.
"It doesn't need to be said they have some world-class players," O'Reilly told FIFA.com. "Kelly Smith is one of the best players in the world and I think that many people would agree on that. I was her team-mate for one summer and I've seen glimpses of brilliance from her. Rachel Yankey is another one I am familiar with. She is an exceptional player and has a really unique style of play. We have to beware of her on Saturday."
Although Smith's summer with the Wildcats in 2004 was curtailed by a broken leg, the following year Yankey and Unitt joined O'Reilly and fellow US internationals Lindsay Tarpley and Cat Whitehill in winning the W-League with the New Jersey club. Indeed Unitt struck the opening goal in their 3-0 final win over Ottawa Fury.
"It was really a pleasure to play with them, all three of them are great girls and great personalities off the field so we all got on really well and keep in touch over the internet," added the former University of North Carolina player. "I just think that English women's soccer is really getting on the map now and these girls are showing the world what they can do and I think it's going to be a really good game."
Besides having played alongside England's finest, O'Reilly can also draw on the experience gained from facing Hope Powell's team in the Four Nations Cup as she looks ahead to Saturday's showdown. The New Brunswick native headed USA's goal in the 1-1 draw with England in Guangzhou in January - a result that ended the Americans' six-game winning streak against their upcoming opponents.
Recalling that encounter, O'Reilly said there was no chance of USA taking England lightly, even if they are entering the contest as clear favourites. "We faced England in the Four Nations, so we've seen them recently and we know they're a big-time quality team. I don't think there is going to be a drop-off in our standard or our expectations at all. Like I said, we know how dangerous Kelly Smith can be, we know how dangerous England can attack. This is you-lose-you're-done so we're going into this with a good mindset."
Ready for responsibility
With her goal against England, O'Reilly - whose aggressive, hard-running playing style earned her the nickname 'The Angry Chicken' at UNC - showed her readiness to take responsibility in a US side then missing the experienced trio of Kristine Lilly, Abby Wambach and Shannon Boxx. Hardly a surprise, however, coming from a player who, at 19, came off the bench to score USA's extra-time winner against world champions Germany in the Women's Olympic Football Tournament semi-final in 2004.
The Olympic gold medallist has already stepped up to the mark at China 2007 too, firing USA's equaliser in the 2-2 draw with Korea DPR in their opening game. "I was thrilled to get the first goal of my World Cup career in that first game and I think that I am working hard for the team and creating some things," she said. While hoping to "elevate my game" against England, however, she countered the argument that USA need to improve drastically. "We can't be too hard on ourselves," she said.
Some critics have suggested that, with five goals in three games, USA have lacked their usual cutting edge but O'Reilly responded: "As long as we keep creating chances the ball will hit the back of the net. The team's done well to come first in the group so that's a positive and we can only look to England right now." And looking to England, will she be in touch with her old friends in the rival camp before Saturday? For now it seems niceties are on hold. "Maybe not before the game," she replied with a smile. "Maybe after."