Well, USA fans have been clamoring for the U.S. Men's National Team to be challenged by some of the best teams in the world, and we now have a chance to show what we're all about.
Defending world champion Italy awaits on June 15, followed by powerhouse Brazil on the 18th, then finally African champions Egypt on the 21st. If we make it out of the group, we stand a good chance of facing European champion and tournament favorites Spain in the semifinals.
The chances of advancing out of the group, most would say, is slim, but what many U.S. fans want to see is a good showing from Sam's Army. Despite calming some anxiety in U.S. soccer circles with its 2-1 victory in Chicago versus Honduras Saturday, there is still discontent out there.
Pundits and fans alike over the last week have been questioning whether this team has improved since 2006 or 2002 even, when the U.S. shocked the world and reached the quarterfinals in Korea/Japan. Many question the coaching abilities of Bob Bradley and the heart and motivation of this current squad.
With that in mind, here are some things to watch for from the U.S. starting Monday in its match with Italy:
What is the preferred lineup and formation?
In all likelihood, Bob Bradley will go with either a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 against Italy on Monday, scrapping the experimental 4-3-3 that was used against Costa Rica. That leaves personnel at several key positions to be decided.
Benny Feilhaber or Ricardo Clark at central midfield? Feilhaber has the creativity and vision not many in the program possess, but he is still working his way into form. Clark is more of a defensive player, and can break up the opposing team's possession and help the U.S. keep possession in midfield.
Conor Casey or Charlie Davies at forward? Davies has proved to be tenacious when he has gotten time on the field, and has a great nose for goal. Casey is a player in the mold of Brian Ching, who is injured currently.
Bradley will probably opt for Casey in a 4-4-2 alignment to pair up with Jozy Altidore simply because Casey can hold the ball and so that he and Altidore can play off one another.
Have the "Jonathans" secured the fullback positions? Jonathan Bornstein and Jonathan Spector both acquitted themselves well against Honduras and probably have the starting positions nailed down at left and right back, respectively (at least for now). Will they get exposed at the highest level of competition or will they continue to make the case for themselves to start? We'll find out.
Based on the above, we may see the following formations or something similar:
(Alternatively, Dempsey up top with Altidore, Feilhaber on right wing)
Has the defense improved?
The U.S. has been leaking goals at the beginning of games (see Honduras and Costa Rica) and it simply cannot do this against the top flight competition it will meet in South African. Give the team credit for coming back against Honduras, but this team needs to improve in this area.
It needs to close down on opposing players, not give up too much space, and anticipate runs off the ball. The U.S. was beaten on both early goals last week by quick combination play, poor defending and slow reactions. That cannot happen against next week if it wants a shot at making it to the semifinals.
Can the team score in the run of play?
The book is out on the U.S.: we can only score on set pieces. In the last two games, the U.S. has scored on two penalty kicks and one corner kick. Teams know that they just need to stop the ball and not foul, and that will usually stymie the U.S. offense.
The U.S. needs to score more often, but it also needs to show it can score in the run of play or else the offense will remain very much one-dimensional.
Will we see a more motivated side?
One source of pride in 2002 and 2006 was the heart and courage the team displayed every time it stepped on the field. As a U.S. fan, you knew that the opposing team might be more skilled, but that the U.S. would put in a total effort on the field.
This included chasing after loose balls, playing physical and making tackles, and generally approaching the games without fear.
Once can argue that the U.S. has not shown those qualities on a consistent basis in 2009, and this has become worrisome to fans. In the games against Costa Rica and Honduras, the team played with little purpose and looked listless.
The U.S. used to be able to will itself to results (see vs. Italy, 2006 World Cup) in the past. Does this team possess the requisite heart and can it relish the underdog role again? We'll see.
What is the state of the U.S. National Team?
This is the question of all questions, the one underlying the ones above: how good are we? Could we be better? Have we regressed?
After the win against Honduras, there is little concern that the U.S. won't qualify for the World Cup next year. But fans of the U.S. are smarter now than they've ever been and are expecting more.
Qualifying for the World Cup is no longer the goal; getting out of the group stages is now the bar fans have set for this team.
I watched a highlight video of the US-Germany match from the quarterfinals in 2002 recently and I immediately noticed our composure on the ball, how quickly we played the ball forward, the improved passing and attack, and overall aggressiveness of our players.
We seem to be lacking those qualities now and message boards and articles by the pundits wonder if it is our coach, the tactics, the lack of talent, in-form players, etc.
The list of possible reasons goes on and on, but for many, we've come to expect more from this team and it isn't delivering right now. But maybe that changes come Monday, Thursday and Sunday of next week. Perhaps this team plays with a chip on its' shoulder again and takes the game to its opponents instead of the other way around.
Next week's games provide the perfect test, and excellent barometer of where the program stands. Those games will hopefully go a long way towards answering these questions. If the responses are not favorable, the questions will persist and changes to the program may be in the offing.
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