The United States began their campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ in impressive style, hammering Caribbean minnows Barbados 8-0 over two legs in the second round of qualifying in North, Central America and the Caribbean. The result saw them through to the first group stage in the region, where they will be keen to finish among the top two of a section that also includes Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala.
For well over a decade the United States has been standing right up to old standard bearers Mexico for CONCACAF's top bragging rights. Although it is still a contentious issue on both sides of the Rio Grande (the river which separates the US from its southern neighbours), the Americans' first-place finish in qualifying for Germany 2006 and a recent win over Mexico which brought a fourth CONCACAF Gold Cup crown has many saying it's the USA that holds sway heading into qualifying for South Africa 2010.
After finishing fourth at the first world finals in Uruguay in 1930, the USA made waves by beating England in 1950 before settling into a regrettable tradition of underachievement on the football front as other sports such as baseball, gridiron and ice hockey took hold back home. But with a large immigrant movement and firm ethnic strongholds, the States was still considered something of a sleeping giant in those waning years. They awakened in 1990, qualifying for the finals in Italy after forty years in the international wilderness.
The Americans haven't looked back and have reached every FIFA World Cup since with their best finish coming in 2002 in Korea/Japan where they went just a whisker from reaching the semi-finals after beating Mexico in the round of sixteen. A first-round exit from Germany 2006 had some wondering if the success of 2002 was an anomaly, but 2007 brought a return to positive thinking and hope for future glories.
The early exit from Germany was compounded by the dismissal of long-time head coach Bruce Arena and the retirement of the influential trio of captain Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope. The shake-up sent the Americans into a tailspin of self-doubt that they only managed to pull out of in time to win the June 2007 instalment of the CONCACAF Gold Cup - the region's biannual cup of nations.
The current team is led by homegrown coach Bob Bradley, a one-time apprentice to Arena and not exactly the world renowned name the US Soccer Federation had promised. Despite his lack of international pedigree, the coach made a fighting unit of his team and has taken advantage of his history in the country's youth system to prepare a squad combining overseas stars and home-grown, up-and-comers from Major League Soccer.
In the foreign legion are such established names as DaMarcus Beasley of Glasgow Rangers, Feilhaber of Derby County - who was plucked from obscurity in California and now looks like one of the team's hottest properties. Also, the England-based goalkeeping trio of Kasey Keller (Fulham), Tim Howard (Everton) and Marcus Hahnemann (Reading) is as strong as any team can lay claim to.
Clint Dempsey has been making his mark at Fulham alongside Keller, and teenage sensation Freddy Adu of Benfica will also be a tempting option for Bradley. In MLS, Landon Donovan of LA Galaxy leads the homeboys.