It’s time for 32 World Cup teams to meet their maker. Four years of preparation have come to this. It’s a little unnerving. Anything and everything can happen. For the U.S., things are no different. Three games in the Brazilian heat are about to decide the success of the last four years of international football. Here is the ultimate preview for the United States of America’s World Cup campaign.
On the Group of Death:
Is this hardest World Cup group ever? Have we ever seen four teams with legitimate hopes of making the knockout round drawn in the same group? This group has one quarter of the round of 16 sides from South Africa. It has the one of the World Cup favorites, the best player in the world, arguably the best team in Africa and the best team in CONCACAF. Every game is fit for the latter stages, it’s murderers’ row and unfortunately two teams will have to leave after the slug-fest they’ll go through.
On Jurgen Klinsmann:
He loves pressure, right? The pressure moments are the ones where Klinsmann is the only guy left smiling, the only guy left clapping. Klinsmann eats World Cups up. As a player, he scored 11 World Cup goals, won the World Cup in 1990 and the Golden Boot in 1994. As a manager, he pulled together a German team that looked destined to finally turn the steely German public into a mess of babbling buffoons after a 4-1 friendly drubbing to Italy three months before the tournament to the suave side that took third place and instead returned a sense of pride in nationalism and patriotism to the country. Klinsmann’s writing is in Time magazine. He flies airplanes so he doesn’t have to deal with the LA traffic. He’ll be ready to lead his troops to battle but if fails the media will bring up Landon Donovan as a point when he messed up.
It’s a funny thing, form. Just a few months ago we were all panicked about Clint Dempsey. He hadn’t played good soccer in some 10 months, had a miserable first half season with the Seattle Sounders, almost played his way off a last-place Fulham team on loan and was behaving increasingly petulantly on the field. So, how do you like him now? Two months into the MLS season, Dempsey has unquestionably been the best player in the league. He’s top of the scoring charts with eight goals so far and the Sounders are top of the table. Dempsey still doesn’t look like he’s having any fun but there are no concerns over him going into Brazil. Michael Bradley is playing good soccer too. He’s been helped by playing every week with Toronto F.C. and he’s scoring goals at a rate that we haven’t seen from him at any point in his career. Even Jozy Altidore finally scored a brace against Nigeria and has some confidence back in himself but everything will remain about the midfield leaders. Bradley and Dempsey are the U.S.’s best players and they have to be great at the World Cup.
I know, Cristiano Ronaldo. But here’s the thing: Portugal just doesn’t scare me that much. It may be their lack of World Cup pedigree. They’ve only advanced from group stage three times – that’s one less than the U.S., if you’re keeping score. It may be that I watched Portugal turn in some bizarre performances in qualifying, almost losing twice to Northern Ireland. It may be that their midfield is rickety and old with players like Miguel Veloso and Raul Miereles still considered critical. Portugal need Nani to take pressure and attention away from Ronaldo, but Nani last played a good game from Manchester United in 2011. It may be that I like the way this game is sets up for the U.S., in the stifling heat of Manaus where I expect a European team will struggle. If Portugal is coming in with a loss against Germany and the US is coming in with a win against Ghana, I could easily see Portugal coming apart. It may be recent history that has me confident. In 2002, Portugal was supposed to destroy the United States – instead, they were 3-0 down inside a half hour. On the other hand, Ronaldo. Yeah, we’re screwed.
On The Rest Of The Group:
What does the U.S. want to happen in Group G games not involving them? The Americans needs a strong Germany. If Germany can beat, preferably beat comfortably, Portugal and Ghana, they will have six points and will have already won the group going into their last group game with the USA. Whether Joachim Loew would rest key players, take his foot off the gas and risk losing to his mentor and German legend Klinsmann is a different question but if Germany have nothing to play for against the U.S., the Americans will have a better chance of getting a result.Besides, if Portugal or Ghana pick up points against the Germans, the U.S.’s job is going to be a lot harder. But Germany scares me. Not only are they dealing with injuries to key players, Loew has problems up top and in defense. His only forwards are the ancient Miroslav Klose, who is quality but also dealing with injury, and Lukas Podolski. We may see a false nine from them with Thomas Muller or Mario Gotze up top, but all precedent says you need a top striker to win a World Cup.
This isn’t 2013 when Germany was on top of the world with Bayern and Dortmund in the Champions League Final and Mesut Ozil tallying the most assists in Europe. In defense, Marcel Schmelzer is the team’s only left-back and they’re thin everywhere else too, especially if Phillip Lahm plays in midfield. Germany is going to concede goals. Ronaldo could have a field day in that opening game.If the Germans struggle, the group could be thrown wide open. If it’s a three or four team race, the U.S. may need five points to get through, as opposed to maybe just four if Germany runs the table.
The Americans have talent problems. It’s safe to say that if any of the teams in Group G show up and play their very best game, the U.S. will exit the World Cup with no points. Even Ghana smashed a strong Egypt 6-1 in a World Cup playoff. That’s what scares me most about this tournament. Talent. I have no doubt that the Americans will be a unified force that work well together and fight for each other.
On The Starting Lineup & Squad:
The US backline is in flux more than any other area of the team, and it’s clearly the weakest link. Only Matt Besler is a nailed down starter. Besler is solid. He’s been the best center-back in MLS since the middle of Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 championship-winning season and he’s been terrific this year too. Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron looks to Besler’s partner in the middle. Cameron can play fullback, center back, or central midfield and you figure the U.S. wants him on the field. The problem for Cameron is that his versatility has meant that he hasn’t been able to nail down one position on the field. He’s played all year at right-back in the Premier League, and he’s in a four-way race to start there.
Fabian Johnson seems to be the starter at right-back and he is a quality player who spends his club days mostly in midfield and can bomb forward. On the left it will most likely be DeMarcus Beasley. Beasley is a speed guy who’s getting old, but he compensates with positional smarts and a generally high soccer IQ. Klinsmann has options here, and with the heat of Brazil, he may need to use them. Can Beasley play three full matches in a row? Probably not. At some point we’ll most likely see Johnson and Cameron as fullbacks.
If Klinsamnn goes for his 4-2-3-1, the U.S.’s central midfield will be crucial, both to shield the back-line and to distribute passes and start the counterattack. Bradley is the man and the question here is how to get the most out of him. The April friendly against Mexico was an eye-opener. Bradley pushed higher up the field with Kyle Beckerman holding and was dominant in attack. He scored, had an assist and according to Mexico’s manager Miguel Herrera, looked like “the best player in the world.”
Bradley was able to get forward because Beckerman is a true #6 , a holding midfielder who doesn’t need or want to venture forward. Beckerman is a Klinsmann favorite for his professionalism, reliability and because he’s been at the heart of Real Salt Lake’s run of success in the last six years. Jermaine Jones is the man who is more likely to line up next to Bradley. Jones is a seasoned veteran in Europe, he played in the Champions League with Schalke and is now in Europe. Jones is better athletically and certainly more tenacious than Beckerman. When he’s good, he’s a terror. But he doesn’t usually perform his best for the U.S., and has a habit losing focus and compensating with rash challenges. Jones could be a red card waiting to happen. The other problem with Jones is that he and Bradley are both central midfielders and because of Jones’ lack of defensive discipline, Bradley has to hang back at the base of midfield. I think Jones starts against Ghana, but if things don’t work there, it may be Beckerman going forward.
Clint Dempsey’s role as a central attacking midfielder is coming into focus. That’s where he’s been tearing it up for Seattle this season, and that’s where he’ll have the best chance to impact the game. Graham Zusi looks like the man wide right. He, along with Besler, has established himself through Sporting Kansas City’s 2013 title run. Zusi isn’t great technically, which is why he was so unheralded coming out of college, but he’s an aggressive player who gets himself in good positions. Brad Davis will most likely be on the wide left and can deliver a great-set piece or cross but not much else at the international level.
Oh, Jozy. He’s had a miserable year with Sunderland, no, miserable doesn’t even begin to describe it. He started the year as one of Sunderland’s most expensive signings ever, and ended it struggling to make the bench. It was a total failure, but Altidore needs to put it in the rear-view mirror. The last time Jozy was with the national team for an extended period of time, he was breaking scoring records over the summer of 2013. The 24-year-old needs to be involved in linkup play, one and two touch, with the ball at his feet and he can easily become isolated from play and isn’t good with the ball in the air so it’s important to keep him in the game. For the most part, the U.S. have done this.
Altidore is a necessity because there is no other target forward option. Aron Johannsson, who basically took Altidore’s old job as AZ Alkmaar’s top striker, can’t hold the ball up by himself. Meanwhile, Wondolowski is peaking at the right time. He’s another Klinsmann favorite and one goal-poacher is always good to have on the plane.
We know what this World Cup is, right? The Soccer Gods’ revenge for 2010.
For one of the lightest travel schedules in recent World Cup history. For Donovan’s stoppage time winner. For Rob Green’s fumble. Pretty much everything that could have gone right went right in 2010, yes, yes, save for the refereeing, and in return, the Gods wrecked havoc in 2014. Klinsmann wanted anyone but Germany, so he got Germany. He wanted any place but Manaus, so he got Manaus. The U.S. got hammered in the draw. Not a surprise, considering 2010.
On Recent Trends:
Since 1990 and the beginning of the modern era of U.S. Soccer, the Americans have advanced from the group stage of the World Cup every other tournament.
They went out early in ’90, advanced in 1994, failed miserably in 1998, went to the quarterfinal in 2002, crashed and burned in 2006 and escaped into the knockout round in 2010. So it doesn’t look good for 2014. On the other hand, in 2006 and 2010 when the Americans played Ghana, the Black Stars wore their red kits with the US sported their home whites. In Natal on June 16th, the US will be in their change reds, while Ghana will be in their home whites.
Yeah, About Ghana:
I wouldn’t say that the U.S. is due against Ghana because it’s an easy cliche but the U.S. due against Ghana. In reality, the Americans should have beaten Ghana in 2006 and 2010. These two teams are so evenly matched that no law of averages would saw that Ghana could win three World Cup meetings in a row. Ghana’s defense is really suspect. I think the U.S. has a huge coaching and organizational advantage. I’m sure there will be plenty of goals and drama in this game but at the end of the day, if we lose to Ghana for the third time running, we don’t deserve to be in contention.
So What’s Going To Happen?
Who knows. The World Cup is hard to call because senior national teams play competitive games with each other so infrequently and almost never against the teams they face at the World Cup. Really, anything can happen. I can easily see a scared and over-matched U.S. defense being ripped to shreds from the word go by each of its Group G opponents. But I can also see Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey dominating games, and the Americans digging in, believing and gutting something amazing out. I do know this: the stage will be massive. TV ratings records will be smashed. And we’ll remember what the U.S. do in this World Cup for a long time to come.
I believe that we will win. Do you?