by Eric Moeller

After closing out the 2007 calendar year with a 1-0 win over South Africa on Nov. 17, the U.S. Men’s National Team will take the field for the first time in 2008 to face Sweden on Saturday.

The match, which takes place at the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA at 5:30 p.m. PT, will mark only the sixth meeting between the U.S. and Sweden with the Swedes leading the series 3-2, including a 1-0 victory last August.

With the U.S. Team gearing up for the start of World Cup qualifiers in June and Sweden preparing for this summer’s 2008 European Championships, both squads will be looking to build momentum with a win in California.

“I think we all understand this (year) is the start of the World Cup qualifying and I guess the level of seriousness has to step up,” defender Jimmy Conrad said to ussoccer.com. “We have a lot of important games and the teams that we’re going to play probably won’t play pretty soccer — we need to be ready to battle and Sweden’s a good first test for us to get out and see what we can do.”

The contest also holds an intriguing spot in the history books, as it marks the 500th international match for the U.S. national team. If the team — which holds an all-time record of 193-194-112 — gets the win, it will have a .500 winning percentage over its 92-year history. The first-ever international match for the U.S. was a 3-2 victory over Sweden in Stockholm on Aug. 20, 1916.

Of the 25 players on its roster, the U.S. Team will dress 18, including star forward Landon Donovan. The 25-year-old forward is the national team’s leading cap winner, boasting 96 appearances and 34 goals in international play. The two-time U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year is already the USA’s all-time leader in assists (26) and is one goal shy of the owning the team’s all-time scoring record. With his experience, Donovan knows the importance of starting the year off strong with the World Cup qualifiers approaching.

“Now it’s real,” Donovan told ussoccer.com. “Last year was kind of a test run to see how it goes. Now, these are games that matter, so you don’t have time to lose a game here or lose a game there. You’ve got to win games.”

With 2008 marking the U.S. team’s second year under head coach Bob Bradley, Donovan is confident that the foundation for success is in place and that it’s now up to the team’s players to come together.

“We know what to expect from Bob, which is a big plus,” Donovan said. “It’s up to the guys now whether they want to take it on and be a part of this.”