With the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 World Cup just around the corner, the United States is looking forward to a busy, difficult, and important 2009. Here are a few of the top stories and events going into the new year.
1. Chance to Win at Estadio Azteca (Aug. 12)
The United States has never beaten hated rival Mexico at Aztec Stadium, and with good reason; the venue is one of the most daunting in all of international football. Over 100,000 screaming fans is enough to unravel even the most composed of squads.
So why can this year be any different for the Stars and Stripes? Simply put, Mexico isn't as good as they used to be.
Sven-Goran Eriksson's team has struggled mightily in WC qualifying so far. El Tri lost two of its last three matches in the third qualifying round, and drew the other.
Further, Mexico had to rely on goal differential against Jamaica in order to make it to the final round of qualifying, and there are more than a few soccer pundits that are pegging them as a surprise non-qualifier in 2010.
While the thought of Mexico not qualifying seems unfathomable, and will probably be considered ridiculous in 10 months, if the U.S. were ever to take a game in Mexico City, this year appears to be the best chance.
2. Jozy and Freddy
It's difficult to remember two players whose progress has been more intimately intertwined with the national team than these two youngsters.
Freddy Adu has been a household name since before he hit puberty, and while he has yet to reach the lofty expectations laid out by some, there is no doubt that he has become one of the U.S. team's most dangerous players.
While he is not the finisher the team so desperately needs, he is the best player this side of Landon Donovan for creating space and opportunities for other players.
For a team whose offensive strategy is often mired in poor shot-taking and lifeless crosses, there may be no remedy like a player who can spark creative football with a single touch.
For Jozy Altidore, the goal is simple: become the best US striker since Brian McBride, if not ever. Jozy is barely 19, yet every U.S. soccer fan knows his name, and wonders aloud where he is when coach Bob Bradley doesn't have him on the pitch.
Though his appearances have been sparse (just six caps so far) he gives the Americans their best scoring threat going into South Africa and beyond.
While skeptics will point to other U.S. scoring prodigies like Eddie Johnson, there seems to be something special about this kid as long as he keeps his head on straight and keeps plugging forward.
3. Landon's Last Run?
While it is almost certain that we will see Landon sport the red, white, and blue after the World Cup, there has to be a question as to whether he will be the star player again.
Landon, like him or not, is without question one of the best players in American soccer history, if not the best.
However, this will be his third World Cup go-round and time catches up even to the best of us.
A move back to Germany with Bayern Munich will hopefully ramp up his level of play, and prepare him for one last run as the face of U.S. soccer.
4. Confederations Cup (June 14-28, South Africa)
One of the biggest reasons pointed to for the United States' disappointing 2006 World Cup run was the lack of top-level competition in the year leading up to the tournament. No such complaint is likely to be heard this time.
The Confederations Cup, held primarily as a warm-up for the following year's World Cup, will be held in South Africa and pits the United States against the six continent winners, the host South Africa, and defending World Cup champion Italy.
The Americans have already had a stroke of bad luck by drawing the same group with powerhouses Italy and Brazil, along with one of the world's most underrated teams, Egypt.
A strong showing this summer in South Africa could be just the thing the U.S. needs to carry it into a return trip in 2010, while a dismal showing could send the team into a panic and lead to USSF replacing Bob Bradley.
By qualifying for the CC with their 2007 Gold Cup victory, the U.S. ensured that they will if nothing else, know exactly how far along they are with a year left.
5. World Cup Draw (December)
Without jinxing it, barring an epic and embarrassing collapse, the United States should be on its way to a sixth straight World Cup. Though like in 2006, how far they go will likely be in large part dictated by who is in their group.
Already suffering some bad luck draw-wise in the Confederations Cup as noted above, the Americans can ill afford to have the same kind of bad luck for 2010.
In 2006, the draw of Italy, Czech Republic, and Ghana for Germany put the U.S. behind the eight-ball before the tournament even started.
While some will point toward the team's stunning opening-round victory over Portugal in 2002 as evidence that draw is not important, the simple fact is that it is.
The U.S. is always facing an uphill battle when it comes to major international competitions, and it needs every advantage it can get...even if that advantage comes out of a hat.
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