American idol

For more than a decade, John Harkes was the face of soccer in the United States, starring for his country at the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups.

One of the first American players to move across the Atlantic to ply his trade in England, the midfielder spent five years with Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County before joining West Ham United on loan from the US Soccer Federation in October 1995.

Harkes would spend six months at the Boleyn Ground, making 13 appearances before returning to his homeland to play for DC United in the newly-created MLS.

More than a decade later, the 43-year-old is working for American broadcaster ESPN and coaching youngsters, but he still harbours fond memories of his short stay in east London.

whufc.com caught up with Harkes, who is working in South Africa for the duration of the 2010 World Cup, ahead of Saturday's mouth-watering Group C fixture between England and the United States.

John Harkes

John, you are out in South Africa, so you will obviously be following the World Cup closely?

"I am working full-time with ESPN calling matches and I will be covering the games live during the World Cup. I've been working from the studio ahead of the tournament kicking-off on Friday and have been doing a lot of shows from South Africa.

"I was at England's final tune-up match against the Platinum Stars on Monday with Martin Tyler, who I will be calling the match with on Saturday.

"It was interesting to see the game. I was surprised that England wanted to play a friendly so close to the start of the tournament with so many injuries floating around.

How did England shape up, in your opinion?

"They didn't look too good, to be honest. Fabio Capello went with a near first-choice lineup before half-time, with Joe Hart in goal, a back four of Glen Johnson, John Terry, Ledley King and Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield and Joe Cole on the left.

"Up front, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch started and they were so stranded. They were putting pressure on the back four, but they were doing it on their own. They were up against four defenders and a keeper and it made it easy for the other team to keep the ball.

"England looked a bit disconnected, but after half-time they improved when Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey came on up front and Joe Cole found a lot more space in the midfield."

Did what you saw give you encouragement as an American?

"I have to be objective while I'm working, but if I'm talking as a fan, I don't think you can really read too much into a tune-up game like that. They don't have the intensity of competitive World Cup matches.

"On Saturday, it will all be about who wants it more and who has got the desire to play to their best.

"England are the favourites, but we all know that on any given day, there are opportunities for certain teams to surprise and walk away with a draw or even a victory."

Is there a danger of England under-estimating the US team?

"I think the US has got some good players. Our strengths are out organisation, our never-say-die attitude and our team's intention to go to a World Cup and achieve exciting things.

"Being realistic, England should walk away with a win, but we have all seen teams pick up surprising results.

"At a World Cup, it is important to think about it as a three-match tournament to start with, rather than focusing all your efforts on the first game. Sometimes the media can build up expectations so far that the pressure can get to the players. The pressure is on England on Saturday, while the US players can just go out and enjoy it."

John Harkes

You played at two FIFA World Cup finals in Italy in 1990 and in your home country in 1994. It must be the pinnacle of any professional footballer's career?

"You cannot beat it. It's the ultimate achievement for any player to appear at a World Cup. You play with the passion and desire that you only experience when you are playing for your country.

"You have to seize the opportunity and enjoy every second of it, because the games go by so quickly.

"I remember as a player at USA 94 that the atmosphere was incredible and it can inspire you to achieve great things. In our second match we played Colombia, who everybody including Pele was tipping as the dark horses to win the tournament, and we beat them 2-1."

West Ham United have four representatives at South Africa 2010, three of whom could be involved in Saturday's match. Do you see Robert Green, Matthew Upson and Jonathan Spector being involved?

"Jonathan Spector has a chance to play for the US. He did well in the Confederations Cup here last year and is a good, versatile player.

"Bob Bradley has to choose between Jon and Steve Cherundolo for the right-back position and I think Steve's experience may see him handed the start. However, Jon can also play at left-back and he could see some playing time there.

"People sometimes forget he is still young at 24. He had an inconsistent season not helped by injuries, but he has some pace and is determined to do well.

"Robert Green is a good goalkeeper and he showed that in the warm-up game against Mexico. He did what he had to do, and also made the big saves he needed to make against Carlos Vela when he was left one-on-one.

"The competition for the goalkeeping position for England is strong. David James has had an injury since he got to South Africa and I'm not sure Joe Hart's distribution is good enough, so I think Robert Green will get the start."

Do you think England and the US will be the two teams to progress from Group C?

"I think so, yes, but the other two teams are capable too.

"Slovenia showed in qualifying that they can pull off some great results. They went to Bratislava and beat Slovakia in the group and then knocked Russia out in the play-off, securing a result in Moscow and then finishing the job at home.

"They don't have great individual stars, but they are an organised team and work hard for each other.

"Algeria are very inconsistent and don't have a lot of discipline, but they can be a difficult team to break down."

Back here at West Ham, we have a new manager in Avram Grant. Have you been keeping a close eye on the Hammers?

"Yes, I always have a strong interest in how West Ham are doing. Obviously I have a link there with Jonathan Spector, but I also have a lot of fond memories of my time there.

"It was a bit unfortunate because at the time, the MLS was just starting and a lot of American players went back to the States to help the league to get off the ground and I was one of them. We had a responsibility to help the game grow at home.

"I had a lot of injuries and I wasn't able to make myself available to Harry Redknapp and Frank Lampard every week, which was a shame. I was also travelling back to the States a lot to play for the US and it meant I wasn't always to be at my best.

"That said, West Ham is a wonderful club with great supporters and I'll never forget my time there."

John Harkes

Finally, aside from your media work, what else keeps you busy?

"I was working as an assistant to former US head coach Bruce Arena at the New York Red Bulls and the original long-term plan was for me to be groomed to take over from him. Unfortunately he left the club and I followed him out so that didn't happen.

"I'm now coaching young kids in Virginia and it is great to teach them good habits when they are young, because it is so important, I'm coaching U12s, U15s and U17s just outside Washington DC and I love it.

"West Ham has a partnership with a club near us, the North Virginia Royals, and it is good to see the club forging links in the US as that can only be good for the future."