The United States men’s national team just finished its most successful year in team history in 2013.
The Yanks put together a runaway World Cup qualifying campaign and won the Gold Cup championship this summer.
They also beat Germany, Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Considering all of that, it might seem odd to be pointing out the team’s limitations right now, but following two listless performances in Europe over the past week, it is necessary.
Here are four reasons U.S. fans should be realistic about the team’s prospects at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The one factor the USMNT and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann cannot control is the group the team ends up in. And, if U.S. fans really want to see what that might be like, they can tinker with the draw simulator here. Be warned: It’s likely to be ugly.
Because of the way the pots are likely to be arranged, the U.S. will probably end up in a “Group of Death.” As it stands now, Pot 1 would include Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay (if they qualify), Spain, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland. The Swiss are the only team the U.S. would not be a severe underdog against in Pot 1.
However, the truly terrifying part of the draw are the teams in Pot 4.
This group includes the Netherlands, Italy, Bosnia, England, Portugal, Russia, Greece and Croatia. The U.S. would struggle mightily against most of those teams and, paired with a likely loss against one of the seeded teams from Pot 1, the U.S. would see their World Cup end in the group stage.
For those fans hopeful that Pot 3 could provide some relief, that group would currently include Chile, Ecuador, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Algeria and France. Any of those teams, save Algeria, would likely provide a serious test for the U.S. as well.
Over the past five days, the U.S. was shutout by two teams in Europe—both of whom failed to even qualify for the World Cup. The goalless efforts revealed how much the U.S. is still dependent on its aging stars Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey and Donovan are the two leading scorers in the Jurgen Klinsmann era with 14 and 11 goals respectively. After that, it’s Jozy Altidore with nine goals and Eddie Johnson with seven.
Following Altidore and EJ, Chris Wondolowski and Herculez Gomez have five goals apiece—both Gomez and Wondo are long shots to even make the World Cup roster at this point.
The problem for the U.S. is that Donovan and Dempsey are both near the end of their careers at 32 and 31 years of age. Both are still obviously capable of playing at a very high level, but they have also been beset by uncharacteristic injuries of late and have seen inconsistencies in form not usually evident in their play.
Donovan recovered nicely from his 2012-13 winter hiatus, playing well over the summer, but then faded toward the end of the Major League Soccer season and has recently been hit with an ankle injury that, stubbornly, won’t heal.
Dempsey was near the top of his game just six months ago, playing well for Tottenham in the English Premier League and scoring some nice goals for the USMNT in June World Cup qualifying, but then he transferred to the Seattle Sounders where he scored just one goal in 12 appearances.
Dempsey missed the recent games against Scotland and Austria due to a calf injury.
Without Dempsey and Donovan, the U.S. was unable to break down either the Scottish or Austrian defenses. Things will be much harder for the team, even if Donovan and Dempsey are healthy, in Brazil.
There is not a single starter locked down on the back line
The U.S. has plenty of depth on the back line, but the problem is there is no chemistry between any particular group because of the constant rotation of starters.
At left-back, the U.S. has DaMarcus Beasley, who has done an admirable job at the position since being put there in the March World Cup qualifiers by Klinsmann. However, Klinsmann still, stubbornly, considers Fabian Johnson a midfielder, and the only other player in the mix is Edgar Castillo, who attacks very well out of the back but usually struggles in that other area—defending.
At center-back, the U.S. has plenty of options in Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, John Anthony Brooks and potentially Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco.
Besler has been a steady presence when available, and Gonzalez is continuing to improve. However, considering injuries and Klinsmann’s unclear depth chart at the position, the center-back tandems are continually changing, making it hard for any one partnership to develop chemistry.
At right-back, the U.S. depth chart is completely up in the air. Klinsmann still insists that Brad Evans is his No. 1, despite some obvious cracks in Evans’ game, and Klinsmann is reluctant to play Geoff Cameron there.
Cameron has proved to two English Premier League managers he is capable of playing right-back, but Klinsmann still thinks of him as one of the U.S.’ best options at center-back.
Timmy Chandler has seemingly been banished from the squad, Eric Lichaj has had limited opportunities and Steve Cherundolo has spent the last year recovering from multiple knee surgeries.
Without a solid, in-sync back line in Brazil, the U.S. has no chance.
The Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones partnership is limited
In Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1, which he has preferred since the March qualifiers, the U.S. uses a double-pivot in front of the back line. Klinsmann’s preferred partnership in that double-pivot role is Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
However, as many have noted, in that lineup Michael Bradley forays into the attack are limited.
In the Klinsmann era, Bradley has scored one goal and tallied three assists in a two-center-midfielder setup. Those have come while partnered with Maurice Edu, Geoff Cameron, Danny Williams and Sacha Kljestan. Of those four players, only Kljestan is not a true holding midfielder.
Jones has played the holding role over much of his career for Schalke, and that is, arguably, what he is best at—playing as a destroyer. However, either because Klinsmann doesn’t want Bradley to roam forward more or because Jones is not disciplined enough to stay home, Bradley sits back more often and the U.S. attack stagnates.
There is little question that Bradley is the U.S.’ best overall player and the team is more successful offensively when he gets forward.
If the U.S. is going to succeed at the World Cup, four attacking players are not going to be enough. The team will need a fifth attacker, ideally Bradley, to join the front four going forward and spark the U.S. offense.
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