As of Wednesday morning, the United States men’s national team is only 152 days away from its World Cup opener against Ghana.
Ghana has eliminated the USMNT from the last two World Cups, and the U.S. will also have to contend with world powerhouses Portugal and Germany in the group stage this time around.
So what would it take for the U.S. to get out of its group and, perhaps, even win a game in the knockout round to earn a berth in the World Cup quarterfinals?
Let’s take a look.
Tim Howard Needs to Stand on His Head
Tim Howard has been the starting goalkeeper at Everton for the past eight seasons and, as such, will be the most experienced European player the U.S. has on its roster in Brazil. Facing attackers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Asamoah Gyan and Mesut Ozil, just to name a few, Howard will be very busy in the U.S. net.
In 2010, Howard was clearly not at his best.
After a collision with Emile Heskey in the U.S.’s opening group-stage game against England, Howard suffered from severely bruised ribs and required pain injections to continue playing in the tournament. Against Ghana in the knockout round, Howard could have done better on both of the Black Stars goals.
If the U.S. is to succeed in Brazil, it will need a healthy and in-form Howard to help neutralize the vast attacking talents of the U.S.’s opponents.
The Defense Needs to Play Lights Out
One key worry for USMNT fans heading into Brazil is the relative inexperience of the American backline.
The likely center-back pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez only has a combined 28 caps and both the left-back and right-back positions are still up for grabs.
The defense will have Howard, an experienced international, behind them to help keep things organized, but Besler and Gonzalez will have to be at their best.
Geoff Cameron has a great deal of experience at right-back in the English Premier League, but it’s still unclear where head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will play him. He will likely battle Brad Evans for the spot on the U.S.’s right side.
On the left, DaMarcus Beasley has the inside track, but many fans are openly hoping that Klinsmann decides to deploy Fabian Johnson there rather than using Johnson in the U.S. midfield.
Getting the lineup squared away and working together must be a priority for the U.S.
Consistency out of Jermaine Jones
Jermaine Jones has become one of the most divisive players among U.S. fans with some insisting that his Champions League experience and tough tackling are needed in the U.S. midfield, while others argue that he shouldn’t even be on the roster.
Jones has had some strong performances with the Nats where he has put in excellent effort, covered well for beaten defenders and even jump started the U.S. attack.
On the other hand, Jones has also had games when he’s been a virtual turnover machine, put in lackadaisical effort and contributed almost nothing going forward.
The U.S. needs the former rather than the latter if it is to be successful in Brazil.
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan Need to Produce
Both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are capable leaders for the USMNT, but what the U.S. needs most out of them in Brazil is not vocal leadership but production in terms of goals and assists.
During Donovan’s regular absences from the USMNT over the past two years, the U.S. has, on repeated occasions, lacked creativity in the attack.
Dempsey did well during Donovan’s absences to pick up the load and banged in more goals than anyone else in the U.S. player pool over the past two years. He will need to do the same in Brazil if the U.S. is to have any chance.
In Brazil, against group-stage opponents that are likely to eat up large chunks of time in possession, Donovan’s passing and Dempsey’s finishing will be key to a U.S. squad that will need to be efficient in the counterattack.
The U.S. Needs an In-Form Striker
Jozy Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland this season have been well noted, as have Aron Johannsson’s successes at AZ Alkmaar.
Altidore still has time to turn things around, and even if he doesn’t, club form does not necessarily transfer into international form. During Altidore’s recent 18-month goalless streak for the USMNT, he was one of the hottest strikers in the Eredivisie.
Likewise, despite Aron Johannsson’s recent run of club form, the question remains whether or not he can translate that into success with the USMNT.
It’s still very early in his international career, and while his touch and instincts are superb, his finishing thus far with the U.S. has been downright abysmal and full of wasted chances.
Another question with Johannsson is whether or not he fits Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1 as the lone striker.
Johannsson flourishes in a 4-3-3 with AZ, but it remains to be seen whether or not Klinsmann believes Johannsson can play alone up top. Despite Altidore’s woes with Sunderland, he has done okay in his hold-up play, an ideal skill for someone playing up top in a 4-2-3-1. Johannsson, who is much smaller than Altidore, may not be able to play the role the way Klinsmann envisions.
Whichever striker Klinsmann uses, the U.S. will need production out of the striker position to be successful in Brazil. In the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. striker pool combined for a grand total of zero goals over four matches.
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