GROUP C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Alexi Lalas has called this the "easiest group" the USA has ever been drawn into in a World Cup. I think that actually says more about the difficulty of most of the groups the USA has been drawn into over the previous five World Cups than it says about the "easiness" of this group.
England is playing as well as it has since its semifinal run in 1990. With a combination of solid veterans (my Chelsea FC boys Terry, Cole and Lampard, plus Steven Gerard, Rio Ferdinand, and so on) and younger guys rounding into top form (particularly "the Boy," Wayne Rooney), the lineup is very strong, experienced and formidable.
Algeria is something of a mystery. By all rights, Egypt should have secured this African spot in the Cup. But a combination of events led to Algeria grabbing it. Capable of decent football on occasion-- such as when they face the US, given our luck!-- this is a team that should not be overlooked. But if all goes as expected, the Algerians should serve up 9 full points to their foes.
Slovenia is a sort of stealth team as well. Just as Algeria snatched away Egypt's spot, the Slovenes grabbed Russia's. (This group would be a lot scarier if it was England, USA, Egypt, Russia!!) A capable side of the mold of other historic Eastern European teams such as Romania and the Czech Republic, they pose a particular threat to the USA, which never does well against teams from that region. (Examples: Czechoslovakia 1990; Romania 1994; Yugoslavia 1998; Poland 2002; Czech Republic 2006-- all defeats for the US.)
This brings us to the USA. Two factors work in our favor this time around: 1. The USA tends to do well every other World Cup-- and 2006 was a bad one, so we're due. 2. The USA always does much better in Cups held outside of Europe. In fact, the USA has never won a game in a World Cup played in Europe. Meanwhile, in Cups played outside of Europe, we've made the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinals (1994 and 2002).
The main factor limiting the USA this time around is injuries. Charlie Davies, who provides desperately needed speed and scoring threats at the forward position, was injured in a car accident a few months ago and is out. Several other important players, particularly midfielder Clint Dempsey and defender Onyewu, MUST overcome their injuries and play well if the USA is to advance. Aside from that factor, the USA side is actually in pretty good shape, with a seasoned lineup of veteran players experienced in European club play as well as in an improving MLS. And they're the only team to take down mighty Spain in quite some time, in last year's remarkable Confederations Cup run.
Playing in that tourney, by the way, also allowed the US team to gain some experience playing in South Africa as well as playing in the same stadiums they'll be seeing this time around. That's a factor that should not be overlooked.
Predicting what will happen with injured players is never easy. Assuming they are able to perform to something like their capabilities, the USA has a chance to make the second round--which would be considered a success and which is about as far as we can hope for this bunch to advance.
In 2006 I predicted the USA would NOT advance out of its group-- a statement that was not very popular with my soccer friends. But I was right. I don't want sentiment to cloud my judgment, but this time I think we just might squeak through.... IF the injured guys can play to their potential. So I'll say:
USA advances on goal differential over Slovenia.