On Monday, the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) landed in Sao Paulo, a week before their opener against Ghana. It’s easy to say this is the most important World Cup in American history, because, every World Cup is ideally the most important World Cup in history. For teams like the United States, every four years there’s another chance to finally turn the proverbial corner and shock the world. Even for the teams that have been there, done that, it’s an important stage to reclaim or reaffirm their soccer dominance over the rest of the globe. It’s been twelve years since the world had no choice but to pay attention to the United States in the one sport we had for decades seemingly not cared about. It was the 2002 World Cup that solidified the United States as a regular competitor at the World Cup stage, no longer a team just happy to be invited to the party. Since then, the team has been on the verge of the next step, only to stumble over its own feet and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Considering the horrendous product the US put on the field in ’94 and ’98, there’s been significant progress. The United States has emerged from the group stage in two of the last three World Cups. The United States hasn’t just joined Mexico as the “other” reputable team in the otherwise mediocre CONCACAF, they might have eclipsed them and now clearly stand atop the conference. Still, American fans want more.
This is the United States, putting forth a good effort isn’t enough for a nation that dominates almost every other sporting competition on earth. For many years, it was just accepted by Americans that we suck at soccer. It didn’t matter, because nobody cared to watch the sport except in passing during the World Cup. The women’s team dominating the sport, and our valiant effort in 2002 sparked a faint interest that rapidly grew. It’s a great sign for US Soccer when fans are upset at an underwhelming performance like the 2006 World Cup. It’s been an even better sign as our own domestic league, Major League Soccer, has had a renaissance and can fill stadiums with over 20,000 fans. Last Saturday, the United States played a friendly against Nigeria with 50,000+ fans in attendance. ESPN, behind their mammoth bid for the World Cup, has spent considerable time covering the Yanks’ trip to Brazil in a spinoff of their excellent 30 for 30 series. It’s safe to say that while the USA is not Italy, or Germany, or England, we’re no longer a nation that doesn’t care about soccer. We’re a nation that wants to care about soccer, and now, the burden might be squarely on the feet of the United States to show up in a huge way, in the face of incredible adversity to maintain that interest.
Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has a pedigree that might be the best sign of how far American soccer has come since it hosted the ’94 World Cup. Klinsmann, a German national hero, has won at the game’s highest level both as player and coach. He’s made an immediate impact for the red, white and blue, too; he’s the first manager to defeat arch rival Mexico in Estadio Azteca and won the Gold Cup in 2013. Klinsmann has had the Yanks marching tough into Brazil. His attempt to change the identity of US Soccer hasn’t been devoid of criticism. No longer is being the manager of the USMNT a way to avoid media scrutiny, as more and more Americans have decided to give soccer a chance, the exposure of Klinsmann’s tenure as manager has strengthened. It started with the omission of Eddie Johnson from the preliminary 30 man roster earlier in the year. Johnson, a controversial player in his own right, was a key to the USMNT’s success the past calendar year, and may have been the most important player in sealing the team’s bid in the World Cup. Johnson has looked incredibly poor with DC United, and coupled with some unfortunate comments in the press, he seemed to have fallen out of the manager’s good graces. After some deliberation, it seemed understood that this was Klinsmann’s team, and Johnson was not bigger than a team that was composed of many other quality players. It wasn’t until American superstar Landon Donovan was not included in the final 23 man roster that the first serious criticisms of Klinsmann’s managerial approach surfaced.
Donovan has been the face of American soccer since he was 18; the prodigal son that would take the US to the promised land. Since his emergence on the national team in 2000, Donovan has been by far the program’s most consistent player. His resume speaks for itself, his 57 goals and 57 assists are the most in the history of the men’s national team. He’s scored five goals in three World Cups, the most of any CONCACAF player in history. A week after not making the cut for Brazil, he became the MLS all-time leading scorer in some small instance of poetic justice. Still, serious questions had surrounded Donovan’s game in the year leading up to Brazil. Donovan went off the grid, literally, on some soul searching journey to the remote ends of the earth, abandoning professional soccer altogether for months. Perhaps he thought he had earned the right to take a break, after being the anchor of both the USMNT and MLS for so many years. When he eventually returned to the field, he seemed distant, unmotivated and one step slower. Was Donovan putting himself above the stars and stripes by sacrificing his form and fitness to find himself? Or did he deserve to take some time out of the spotlight and scrutiny of being American soccer’s golden boy? As good as Donovan has been for the United States, every discussion about him is had with the implication that he had never fully realized his potential. Donovan was a good, maybe great player for club and country, but he had never taken that next step in being one of the world’s most talented forwards. Some took that as an indictment on Donovan’s ability and approach to the game, others took it as a knock against US Soccer’s inability to produce a more quality player since Donovan made his debut in 2000.
Donovan’s admission, as of now, means one thing: This is Jurgen’s team, for better or worse. By leaving Donovan at home, even at the frail age of 32, and including players like the untested Julian Green and the MLS everyman Chris Wondolowski, he’s gone all in on fielding his guys, regardless of outside influence. It seems that at this point in time, Donovan is no longer one of the best 23 American players on the planet…a point of serious contention. If the USA has a strong showing in the group stages, or defies the odds and advances into the knockout stage, people will hail Klinsmann as a genius. If the very real concerns with the American attack materialize and they have a hard time finishing in the net, people will rightfully question whether or not Donovan should have had the last seat on the plane. Donovan is no longer the most talented American player, he’s no longer the fastest, or most skilled, but he’s the most proven. At the World Cup, sometimes that experience is invaluable, as the pressure of the world’s most important athletic contest can turn even the best legs into Jello and make even the most talented players turn into ghosts. Donovan’s five World Cup goals are more than the world’s two greatest players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Nobody would ever dare say Donovan compares to either but the point remains that he’s come through when it mattered most. This year, the Americans will have to depend on someone else to fill that role.
United States Roster
The United States has toyed with several formations en route to Brazil. The USMNT has built their reputation off of being good on the counter, exploiting a misstep from the opposition and using the team’s excellent athleticism and stamina to turn the opponent on their heels as they blitz toward goal. Counter-attacking is how the United States built its reputation, and being good on the counter-attack is how the team has found most of its success. However, the reliance on the counter for so long is likely an indicator of the team’s inability to field world class players in midfield and at forward. Teams like Germany and Portugal are more than capable of launching a deadly counter if the opportunity presents itself, but they also possess the players that can concentrate on more controlled, level ball movement on offense that doesn’t just count on our guys running faster and longer than theirs. In getting the national team ready for the World Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann has toyed with a variety of formations and strategies in shifting the identity of the USMNT away from simply being known as a counter-heavy offense. Throughout the Gold Cup and qualifying, the manager had a rotating door of American players concentrating on ball control, maintaining longer, more sensible possessions in the attacking third and relying less and less on the counter. CONCACAF presented the Americans a unique opportunity, they weren’t just the most fit team on the field, they were also the most talented. They had the players to employ smarter tactical decisions, slight variations of the diamond formation and keeping its best midfielders back, sitting and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.
Against Germany and Portugal, the United States may need to go back into its old bag of tricks. The United States can run, and run and run with Germany or Portugal for 90+ minutes. That’s not the problem. They likely don’t have the talent this year to employ that smarter brand of soccer against significantly more talented teams that will be throwing the same tactics back at an untested back line. If the US is to get a positive result against Germany or Portugal, it will be through hard work, extremely focused play and a lot of good luck. The Americans will need to counter, they’ll need to convert on every set piece. Free kicks, corners, penalties, anything and everything that presents itself as an opportunity against the two most talented teams in Group G will need to be a weapon in the American arsenal. The defense in particular is worrisome, there’s not only a lack of experience at the World Cup level to worry about, it’s also looked porous and shaky throughout qualifying and in the three tune-up matches. Against Ghana, the United States must exert its power. They are heading to Brazil as the world’s #14 team according to FIFA and #13 according to elo rankings and must play to, and beyond its ranking. Ghana has knocked the United States out of the last two World Cups. In 2006, it was because the United States sent a disappointing and underwhelming team to Italy. In South Africa, it was a heartbreaking, hard fought loss that was as much on the mental lapses of the American defense as Ghana’s talent. A 2-0 result against Ghana is very much within the realm of possibility with this American team, and starting off with a strong result against Ghana is the only way the USMNT has a shot at the knockout stages. In many ways, it’s the most important game the United States will play this June. Will the United States make it out of the group stage? The realist in me thinks that we can be happy with a well played third place finish behind Germany and Portugal. That same part of my brain tells me there’s a strong chance our forwards turn into ghosts, our defense into Swiss cheese and we finish last in the group. The optimist, and the American in me says there’s enough to like on this year’s roster that we find a way to cling onto the second spot and make it into the knockout round. If the team is out of Group G, the path sets up favorably for the United States.
Goalkeeper – There are many parallels between the USMNT and the American national hockey team. Both are regularly stocked with very good players, but lack true world class talent at key positions. The United States hasn’t ever produced a player that would consistently see the starting eleven in the sport’s best clubs. Like the hockey team’s knack for producing dominant goalkeepers, so too, has the USMNT. Outside of Landon Donovan, the most accomplished and respected American player of the post-1994 world is American keeper Tim Howard. Howard is not only the best American keeper, he’s among the best in the world. He’s earned the right to be included in discussions with other world class goalies on more prestigious teams. Howard has been a staple of the English Premier League and has played an integral part in maintaining the US team’s success over the past decade. Of this year’s roster, Howard is the most proven, most consistent and most dependable player. Howard is not a liability, and in many ways, is a strong enough keeper to keep the United States competitive in matches where they’re severely over-matched and outgunned. Just as Howard replaced the phenomenal Kasey Keller, the future of GK for the United States looks incredibly bright. Should Howard falter, or face injury, backup Brad Guzan will step into the box. Guzan’s career has been similar to Howard’s, after making a name for himself as a young star in MLS, Guzan has found his way into the Premier League with Aston Villa. Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando may not have the flashy resume of Howard or Guzan, but the former MLS MVP is an incredibly valuable third option. The United States does not have to worry about its options in goal, and in a group that will throw players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil at the American defense, having a strong keeper is a great insurance policy.
Defense – The American back line is not only inexperienced, but has shown serious signs for concerns in an otherwise strong qualifying run. No player on this year’s defense besides DaMarcus Beasley has played a single minute in a previous World Cup. This either means a new generation of American defensive stalwarts akin to Eddie Pope or Alexi Lalas emerge, or, the inability of the line to stick together and keep to their markings means an early flight home. There’s a lot of unproven potential on this year’s team and unfortunately it will be very much trial by fire. Omar Gonzalez has made quite the name for himself as a star defender in MLS and was well on his way into being a fixture of the American defense. Gonzalez earned his reputation as a star with the LA Galaxy, and at times, he’s been outstanding for the USMNT, too. His performance last August against Mexico in a 0-0 draw was inspired and showed why so many have sung the praises of the 25 year old center back. Some have questioned whether Gonzalez has ever gotten past a lingering knee injury, he’s looked solid at times and absolutely horrendous at others. He’s been jumped by Geoff Cameron of the EPL club Stoke City. Cameron has been far more dependable than Gonzalez as the team has prepared for Brazil and may have clinched the starting spot at center back. What’s best is Cameron’s versatility, he has the ability to play forward as a defensive midfielder and isn’t constrained to just sitting back behind the action. Cameron plays right back for Stoke City, but has shown the ability to play in center comfortably.
Another option at center back is Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler, Besler is a more traditional center back, but he’s played well during qualifying. Besler, a former MLS Defender of the Year and captain of the defending MLS Cup champions, is one of many Americans who could be playing for a spot overseas in the World Cup. While the competition in center is still up in the air, the left back position will likely be occupied by national team mainstay Beasley, the first American to play in four World Cups. Beasley has been a dependable and proven starter for the United States, but at age 32, he’s occupying the left back position more out of necessity than anything else. Beasley has put in a lot of quality minutes in a USA shirt, but there’s not a single position on the American defense that isn’t going to be constantly tested in Group G. With the fresh legs, and promising play of Cameron and Besler, Beasley might be the weakest link on a questionable defense. Fabian Johnson, of Germany’s Borussia Monchengladbach, is one of the team’s most versatile, and interesting prospects, likely at right back. In a position that will put you 1 v 1 against Ronaldo, the United States will need a confident, and talented defender, to say the least. It’s not just Johnson’s potential in the back that should get Americans excited, it’s his ability to press forward that’s the icing on the cake. Johnson showed some of his ability to occupy the midfield and the attacking third, scoring a beautiful goal against Turkey and setting up another in the final game against Nigeria. Riding the proverbial pine for the Americans will be center back John Brooks of Hertha Berlin and Nurnberg’s Timothy Chandler. Chandler has shown signs of promise leading up to the World Cup, but Chandler is unlikely to pass Johnson on the left and Brooks is clearly the odd man out in the group of Cameron, Besler or Gonzalez. One of the most interesting substitutes in Brazil may be defender DeAndre Yedlin of the Seattle Sounders. Yedlin, at age 20, has shown expected growing pains in his short service with the USMNT, but he provides an exceptional change of pace for a defender. Look for Yedlin to be a late substitute that can blitz and thrash his way down the field, disrupting the game’s pace.
Midfield – Midfield is perhaps the team’s strongest group of players. The midfield is of course led by Michael Bradley, formerly of the highly distinguished AS Roma, Bradley has returned to MLS for Toronto in a role that saw his responsibility on the field increase tenfold. Many questioned Bradley’s return stateside, but his increased responsibilities as “the man” for Toronto may prove invaluable this summer. Bradley is considered by most to be the most talented player on the American roster. Bradley emerged as a star in the 2010 World Cup, scoring the equalizer against Slovenia and has ascended into superstardom since. While Bradley is a potent scoring threat, he’ll be tasked with managing the game like a point guard as the tip of America’s midfield, relying on others to do most of the defensive grunt work. We saw some of Bradley’s ability to see the field against Turkey, where he set up Fabian Johnson with a beautiful chip into the box and gave the assist on USA’s second strike against Nigeria. If the United States is going to advance out of the group stages, much of that will be due to Michael Bradley. He is the most talented and skilled player on the roster, a true superstar in the making.
Helping lock down the middle of the field and create openings for the forwards will be Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya. Zusi has made his name in MLS’s Sporting Kansas City, where’s he’s found a knack on set pieces and his ability to cross with precision on the right side of the field. Bedoya is Zusi’s strongest competition on the right, but in tune-ups, he’s played both sides of the field, showcasing his versatility. Bedoya is also a capable defender, a valuable asset on this year’s team considering the difficulties it might face in front of goal. Speaking of defense, the defensive backstop of the midfield may be Jermaine Jones of Turkey’s Besiktas. Backing up Jones in the role of defensive midfielder will be Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman. Both Jones and Beckerman will have to stay true to their roles in the back of the diamond formation if the team wants to succeed. The United States found early success against Mexico using Beckerman as a safety net for Michael Bradley to press forward and Klinsmann has shown a great amount of faith in Jermaine Jones throughout qualifying. It’s outside of the starters that the United States has some wiggle room to get creative in midfield. This starts with this year’s #10 (Donovan’s long time number) Mix Diskerud of Norway’s Rosenborg. At 23, Diskerud has scored three times in 20 appearances for the United States, typically as a substitute. Diskerud showed some of his dynamic striking ability out of the midfield scoring the go-ahead goal against Azerbaijan in the team’s first tune-up match. Diskerud is making his first, of likely many, World Cup appearances for the United States. Outside of Michael Bradley, he’s got the most potential to create opportunities for others, and finish when needed. He could prove to be a true ace up the sleeve for Klinsmann. Rounding out the midfield for the United States is Brad Davis of the Houston Dynamo. Davis is one of the league’s most dependable midfielders and at 32, his hard work for American soccer and the USMNT has paid off with a trip to the World Cup. A serviceable midfielder, Davis is likely only on the field should injury occur, or a player is showing exceptionally poor stamina. At age 19, Julian Green has fans buzzing, Green saw his first minutes with Bayern Munich in the Champions League and has played in various spots throughout the national team’s march to Brazil. Most notably, Green was a touch away from his first international goal in the tune-up match against Turkey. Despite his enormous potential, Green has shown understandable growing pains playing against the world’s highest level of competition, especially against solid teams like Turkey and Nigeria. He may be the next iteration of America’s prodigal soccer son, but as of now, he’s likely just along for the ride.
Forward – The key to the American attack is undoubtedly Jozy Altidore of England’s Sunderland. Altidore has the size to bully opposing defenders in the box, with the speed to keep midfielders in the rearview mirror. As a physical specimen, all the tools are there for a player like Altidore to be a top class striker. The results for both the USMNT and his run in the Premier League have been mixed, at best. At times, Altidore looks unstoppable, particularly in a US jersey, but he’s coming off of the most horrendous run of his career professionally. Altidore scored a whopping 31 goals in Netherland’s Eredivisie and his momentum carried over into international play. A goal against Germany last summer, a heroic hat trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina and it seemed that Altidore had finally started to realize his potential, just in time for the World Cup. Then…it all just stopped. Jozy went 27 matches between Sunderland and the United States without a goal. Against Nigeria, the forward finally found the back of the net, twice, in convincing fashion against a very formidable opponent. When Jozy is firing on all cylinders, the American counter attack can be lethal. At his best, he’s a pretty good forward, and when he’s being supported by stars like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley or Fabian Johnson, the United States can look downright scary. When he’s having an off day…things will get pretty ugly for the team in a group where goal differential may matter.
Speaking of Dempsey (the team’s captain), there are similar questions surrounding which version of “Deuce” will be playing in Brazil. Dempsey is perhaps the most well known player on the team, he’s been a star not only for the United States, but abroad in the Premier League and most recently returned to MLS in a blockbuster designated player deal. When he’s playing well, Clint Dempsey is perhaps the most talented player on the roster, certainly the most proven besides Tim Howard. Like Altidore, at times the captain seems to simply vanish into thin air. Part of this is due to his age and tiring legs, but part of it may be simply adjusting to finally being “the man” on this team. He’s the captain, he’s the name on the back of jerseys in the crowd and there’s going to be a lot expected of him in Brazil. There can be no questions about his motivation, no questions about his form and he must be at 110% of the US wants to advance out of the group stage. Dempsey is his best when he’s relentless on attack and with Bradley playing a box-to-box role, Dempsey will press forward in hopes that he and Altidore make a deadly combo. Aron Johannsson of AZ Alkmaar could be a dynamic, and invaluable substitute at forward. Johannsson does one thing in the Eredivisie and that’s score goals. And, in his limited time with the United States, he’s looked lethal. In less than a year with the team, Aron’s scored the go ahead goal against Panama in qualifying and scored again in the friendly against Azerbaijan. Johannsson is likely playing in his first of several World Cups, but he’s ready to play now and could make an immediate impact in the right situation. Like Diskerud, Brazil could be a launching pad in securing a long, meaningful career with the USMNT for Johannsson. Chris Wondolowski of the San Jose Earthquakes isn’t likely to jump Johannsson in the pecking order at forward, but his story is certainly one worth telling. Wondolowski played Division II soccer in college and was taken in the MLS supplemental draft, the ‘Quakes took a flier on someone that could have, maybe, been a long shot to be a serviceable player or substitute. What they got was a star. Wondolowski eventually became the league’s MVP and was a key piece in the Americans’ run to the Gold Cup in 2013, with a hat trick against Belize. In fact, since last July, “Wondo” has scored five goals for the United States. It’s been a very commendable year for a man who may best embody the values Americans hold most dear in their sports stars. Wondolowski was not brought up through Bayern Munich, he did not play in the Premier League, he’s not the fastest, strongest, or most skilled player on this team. It’s not his pedigree, but his hard work, dedication and sacrifice that’s put him on this roster against all odds. Instead of Landon Donovan. Or Eddie Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, Maurice Edu or a million other more outwardly “deserving” players. Wondo is certainly one to root for.
The United States is going to need the stars to align perfectly if it wants to make the knockout stage. If it does, it will likely meet either Belgium or Russia, two respectable foes, particularly the Belgians, a darkhorse candidate to run deep in this year’s field. Still, this will mean the USA’s made it out alive against Germany, Portugal and their boogeyman, Ghana. That would undoubtedly build confidence in the team and a match against Russia, South Korea, Algeria or even Belgium seem that much more manageable. If the United States doesn’t make it out of the group stage, there’s still a lot to prove. The team needs to look good, even in defeat, and must beat Ghana. Against Germany and Portugal, our team needs to look like they belong on the same field as the world’s best sides, regardless of who’s on the other team. The team needs to solidify its identity on defense and form a consistent attack. If the United States fails to win a game in this group, or fails to score, there will be serious, and warranted, questions about Klinsmann’s approach. There’s lots up in the air, now all there is to do for fans is to sit back, relax and enjoy the show.