Considering the United States men's national team is in the proverbial "group of death" when it heads to Brazil for the World Cup this summer, many of the U.S. players, and even the coaches, will be feeling the pressure—especially American forward Clint Dempsey.
The U.S. back line will be largely young and untested and facing powerful attacking combinations from Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the group stage. The U.S. midfield is much more experienced, but that experience pales in comparison to their opponents'. And even though head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has already extended his contract through the 2018 World Cup, his own reputation will be on the line and measured by the USMNT's performance.
On an individual level, American defenders Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez will need to have outstanding tournaments for the U.S. to survive to the knockout rounds. But between the three of them, they only have 54 international caps. If they fail, many will simply chalk it up to them not being talented enough, or experienced enough, to play at the highest international level.
Neither DaMarcus Beasley nor Brad Evans, quite possibly the U.S. starters at outside back, are truly defenders by nature; if they're eaten up in Brazil, it will simply be confirmation that they were out of their depth. Even Fabian Johnson would survive a poor World Cup relatively unfazed, as he's already signed a contract with Borussia Monchengladbach through 2018 and likely has another World Cup cycle left in his career on the international level.
U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley still has at least one more World Cup in him and, even if he performs poorly, is likely to be named the next U.S. captain. Bradley's expected partner in the U.S. midfield, Jermaine Jones, will be in his last (only) World Cup, but his reputation will have years of success in the Bundesliga to fall back on should he falter this summer—not to mention the fact that many U.S. fans don't have high expectations for Jones.
Graham Zusi, a likely starter for the U.S. on the wing, also probably has one last World Cup in him if he performs poorly this summer. And even if he doesn't, he has a comfortable club situation with Sporting KC and this is only his first World Cup.
Finally, of the aforementioned nine players, American fans really only have high expectations for one: Bradley.
Landon Donovan, regardless of how he performs in Brazil, already has an established record of game-changing performances at the World Cup level and will retire as the USMNT's all-time goal scorer and all-time assists leader.
Jozy Altidore will certainly be under some pressure this summer, especially considering his dreadful goal-scoring record this season at Sunderland, but he's only 24 years old and may still have two more World Cups in him. He'll certainly have time to recover.
Of the USMNT players likely to see significant time in Brazil, that leaves Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. After a fairly tepid performance in South Africa in which he gave up several uncharacteristically soft goals, Howard could certainly do with a strong World Cup. However, Howard could be outstanding for the duration of the tournament this summer and the U.S. could still be out after three games.
Conversely, the U.S. will most likely need a strong performance by Dempsey to escape the group stage, and Dempsey himself will need a strong performance to cement his U.S. national team legacy. This is Dempsey's last World Cup and, unlike Donovan, he has yet to make his mark in the world's greatest tournament.
Donovan was named the Best Young Player of the World Cup in 2002 and created three goals in that tournament. He was largely absent, as was most of the U.S. team, in the 2006 World Cup, but rebounded in 2010, scoring three goals including the ones that led the comeback against Slovenia and won the game against Algeria.
Dempsey, on the other hand, has two World Cup goals, a meaningless tally against Ghana in 2006 and the long-range shot against England in 2010 that somehow dribbled past English goalkeeper Robert Green.
There's no doubt that Dempsey will go down as one of the U.S.'s greatest goal scorers—he's second in all-time goals—and he's one of only a handful of Americans who has had a successful, long-lasting career in Europe. But, if he wants to cement international legacy for the U.S., he'll need to do it this summer in Brazil.
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