IRENE, South Africa -- To beat England, the United States has to stop a player who in real life had the kind of season usually seen only in video games.
Wayne Rooney scored five goals this season against Jozy Altidore's European club team Hull, and three against Jonathan Spector's West Ham. He had two against Clint Dempsey's Fulham, and one each against Marcus Hahnemann's Wolverhampton and Brad Guzan's Aston Villa.
"To be honest, we're under no illusions. We're going to have to be at our best to beat a player like him, or to even match a player like him," American defender Jay DeMerit said Tuesday, four days before the big game.
Rooney, the 24-year-old star of Manchester United and England's national team, was a whirlwind this season. His 26 Premier League goals were second behind Didier Drogba's 29. He had five more in the European Champions League and two in the League Cup.
On Jan. 23 alone, he had four goals against Hull. He has long been a star, but never before had he put together a season like this.
"He's revered. People think of him as a sporting god, and they should," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "He's amazing, quite simply, and he does all the things that a striker needs to do, and he does them great. And that's why he's considered the best one or two players in the world."
Howard kept Rooney from scoring in two games this season, helping Everton gain a league split with Manchester United. He hasn't allowed a goal to Rooney in four club and two national team matches, although Everton went 1-2-1 and the U.S. 0-2.
Dempsey also had big games against United, with Fulham shutting out the Red Devils at Craven Cottage to win Premier League matches in each of the last two seasons.
"We stayed compact defensively. We had two solid backs of four and, you know, we picked and choosed our moments when to get forward," Dempsey said. "The U.S., we play similar to, or try to play similar to how we do at Fulham."
A 5-foot-10 musclebound dynamo of strength and pace, Rooney has 25 goals in 60 appearances for England. He's known for his temper -- he was ejected for stomping on Ricardo Carvalho's groin as England lost to Portugal in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals.
But he hasn't been tossed since United lost at Fulham in March 2009, when he was given his second yellow card of the match for throwing a ball.
"Maturity is one of the final parts of a player's development," United manager Alex Ferguson said. "You can't have it at 16. You can't have it at 18. You can't have it at 21. You have to wait until the mid-20s before they get that authority, timing and maturity that those qualities bring.
And I think what we're seeing with Wayne is quite interesting. There were signs last season that maturity was coming to his game, but not all the time. That's what sometimes, you get with young players."
Rooney's increased maturity on the field and ability to temper his temper was echoed by defender Rio Ferdinand, his England and Manchester United teammate.
"I don't see Wazza having a problem disciplinary-wise at the World Cup at all," Ferdinand, said. "Wayne's disciplinary record has been magnificent over the last couple of years, since the incident in Germany. He's done so well to get where he is now."
Still, Rooney received a yellow card Monday as England beat the local Platinum Stars 3-0 in an exhibition. Referee Jeff Selogilwe claimed Rooney swore at him.
"He is a good player when you see him on the TV, but when you see him on the pitch, he just keeps on insulting the referees," Selogilwe said. "To me it looks like Rooney insults people and fouls other players. If he insults a referee like me, then he will use that vulgar language to other referees as well."
Five days shy of his 17th birthday, Rooney became the youngest scorer in Premier League history when he connected for Everton against Arsenal in October 2002. He moved on to Manchester United for the 2004-05 season, and this year became one of the dominating players in Europe.
American players are concerned about limiting Rooney's scoring, not his fiery nature. Still, they wouldn't mind if Brazilian referee Carlos Simon disciplined him. Simon issued five yellow cards during Italy's 2-0 victory over Ghana in the first round of the 2006 World Cup, eight more in Spain's 3-1 win over Tunisia, and four yellows and a red as Germany beat Sweden 2-0 in the second round.
"Ultimately you try to make his day difficult," DeMerit said of Rooney. "If you start to make those types of personalities have a difficult day, then maybe those types of things come out."
Howard knows that stopping Rooney is a big part of solving England.
He's done it so far, but knows it will require a team effort and big individual performances.
"We'll have our hands full. But we know that," he said. "I think a lot of the pressure that England is facing is heavily on his shoulders, but those shoulders are broad and he relishes those opportunities."