This is a simple concept—perhaps too simple given the stakes—but for the U.S. soccer team to have any chance to succeed in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, the best players are going to have play like they are the best players.
It's the age-old logic in sports: If our best are better than your best, we're probably going to beat you.
Yes, tactics matter. Yes, the entire starting XI is important and the three players each manager chooses to substitute on will undoubtedly have a consistent impact on the results of many matches in Brazil.
Yes, everything matters at the World Cup. The length of a blade of grass could change the way a ball moves on a shot that may send shock waves around the world. That's what makes the event so amazing, and that's what makes the stars even more important.
On paper, there looks to be no more than six teams with a viable chance of winning the World Cup—maybe seven, but probably five—and when one of those teams fails to make it out of the group stage, millions of fans, pundits and football experts will try to find a reason why.
The reason why will be simple: The team's best players didn't play their best.
Teams can manage a result here or there without their top players being at the top of their games, but it's unlikely that any team will advance out of the group stage and deep into the knockout rounds without a major impact from their stars.
For the United States, the question is less about whether their stars can outshine the likes of Ghana, Portugal and Germany and more about identifying who those stars really are.
The U.S. World Cup team enters Brazil with enormous questions at center back, lingering concerns at left back and organizational issues in the midfield. But after defeating Nigeria 2-1 in the final tune-up before heading to Brazil, a few things are very clear: The stars are starting to shine.
While the likes of Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron will need to play well in Brazil for the United States to survive, there are other players Jurgen Klinsmann will rely on even more if the U.S. expects to thrive.
Here is a look at the five most important stars for the U.S. heading into the 2014 World Cup. All of them need to play their best if the U.S. hopes to advance.
No pressure, guys.
The most important takeaway from the Nigeria friendly is the reawakening of Jozy Altidore as a bona fide goal-scoring threat. Just 90 minutes ago in footballing terms, Altidore was seen as less a star for the USMNT and more an attacking role player, holding the ball and setting up passes for others to play off him in the hopes of putting a shot or two on frame.
It's amazing what a little tap-in can do to a player's confidence.
Altidore has been downplaying his scoring drought throughout the dry spell, and while he tried to keep a level head after the match as well, you could just tell that a weight had been taken off his shoulders after that first goal. Altidore looked like a different player in the subsequent 50 minutes and scored a wonderful goal in the 68th minute that was more strength and skill than fortune.
On the first angle of that highlight, you can see how Altidore calmly collects the aerial pass off his chest in stride, controls it with his feet—something he has struggled with during his drought—and takes just one additional touch before putting a shot on frame and into the back of the net.
A week ago, Altidore would have taken an additional one or two touches before shooting, giving the defenders time to recover or creating an easier save situation for the 'keeper.
When you look at the second angle of the replay, you can see Clint Dempsey flashing to the goal. A less confident Altidore would have tried to thread the pass across the box instead of shooting. He needs to keep the shoot-first mentality he found in the game against Nigeria.
That first-half tap-in may have changed everything.
When asked about Altidore's lack of goals last week after the 2-1 victory over Turkey, Dempsey told those of us in earshot that it wasn't just about Jozy's ability to put it in the net.
Everyone, including him, needed to step up for the World Cup: "We all need to be better in Brazil. We need to be at our best. I thought we were good today, but we need to be at our best when we go down there."
They were better against Nigeria than they were against Turkey, and part of the reason for that was Dempsey's renewed rapport with Altidore up top.
Klinsmann has been tinkering with his formations all camp, and he may have found the best option to face Ghana in the 4-2-3-1 he installed against Nigeria. Dempsey is always better in a reserved striker role, ostensibly playing as a midfielder with fewer defensive responsibilities than the other four, allowing him to link up with Altidore and create havoc for the opponents' back line.
That's exactly what they were able to do against Nigeria, and if Dempsey was able to finish a chance he probably should have scored from in the second half—one he also could have passed over to Altidore to finish instead—the scoreline might have looked a lot different.
For roughly two years of this current World Cup cycle, Dempsey was the USMNT's best and, from an attacking standpoint, most important player. He reminded us after the Turkey match that he has only played three (now four) games for U.S. soccer this year, and early on in camp that rustiness showed.
After sitting out the first of three tune-ups this month with a slight groin injury, Dempsey has looked stellar in his link-up play between the midfield and Altidore.
While Jozy scored twice against Nigeria, it is clearly up to the American captain to strike the most fear into the opponent's defenders.
If there is one player on the American team who could raise his profile around the world the most in Brazil, it's Fabian Johnson.
At times in the last two years, Johnson went from being projected at left back, left midfield and left out of the lineup entirely after injuries hurt his chances of even being fit enough to play in the World Cup.
Now, Johnson is not only an absolute guarantee to start at right back for Klinsmann in Brazil, he may be the most important player on the entire team.
Johnson will be facing some of the top forwards in the world, and while he needs to make sure his defensive responsibilities are handled, he also needs to put pressure on the other team with his dynamic runs down the right side.
With the loss of Steve Cherundolo from the USMNT lineup for this World Cup run, it looked like right back was going to be a big concern heading into Brazil. However, Johnson has put that position on lock, showing his ability to not only push forward out wide in crossing situations but get involved in goal-scoring positions as well.
That finish above, and the give-and-go with Michael Bradley that set it up, was world class. Johnson's time as a midfielder will greatly benefit the USMNT on the right side of the field, putting pressure on the opponents to change the way they play against the United States.
It's amazing what three matches can do. Before the match against Azerbaijan, there were huge questions about where Johnson best fit in the team. Now, he's one of the most important players on the field for the United States.
Tim Howard's season at Everton was a fabulous precursor for what he's had to face with the U.S. national team this summer. Injuries plagued the Everton back four all season, with lineups constantly shuffling as talented but young players were installed in unfamiliar roles.
Through it all, Howard seemed virtually unfazed. He organized the players he had and kept rolling, finishing with one of the top goalkeeper ratings in the Premier League and boasting one of the best individual seasons of his career.
Now, even with Johnson on the right playing well, the combination of Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks at center back with DaMarcus Beasley or Timmy Chandler on the left is not exactly the same as Leighton Baines, Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin playing in front of him, is it?
And while Howard did have to bring along young defenders, the most notable came in the form of England international John Stones, who the U.S. would just about die for right now. (Everton fans would agree, however, that even the combination of Gonzalez and Brooks seem more sure-footed and secure than Antolin Alcaraz, but I digress.)
Howard will have a mighty test in Brazil.
The 'keeper is charged with organizing the back line that will constantly have one or more full backs pushing up while facing three dynamic offensive opponents. It includes one that features perhaps the best player on the planet—Cristiano Ronaldo on his own has to be as, if not more, feared as Lionel Messi without his Barca pals—and the best attacking team in the entire tournament in Germany. That's not to suggest the Ghanaian offense isn't top-class as well, it's merely putting three tough challenges in perspective.
No matter what the United States team does on the offensive end, if Howard can keep three clean sheets in Brazil, the team is guaranteed three points in the group.
That's unlikely, sure, but it's the way any 'keeper has to look at the situation Howard is in this month. Even in his mid-30s—having just secured his 100th cap for the USMNT against Nigeria—Howard is still one of the best 'keepers in the world. He has to show it in Brazil if the United States has any chance of advancing.
A lot has changed in four years. The U.S. went to South Africa with Bob Bradley in charge and his son, Michael, installed as an important part of the midfield. When Bob Bradley was let go after the World Cup to make way for Klinsmann, there were questions of the younger Bradley's role within the team.
Would Klinsmann want to clean house of all the old lingering "Bradleyness" of the U.S. program, including the guy who shares a bloodline with the former coach?
Could you imagine this team now, four years after South Africa with the U.S. heading to Brazil, without Michael Bradley controlling the game?
Dempsey may be the captain and Howard may be the vocal leader on the field, but Bradley is without question the most important player on the team.
Bradley is so important to what Klinsmann wants to do in Brazil that the entire camp was spent tinkering with the midfield in the hopes of getting Bradley more opportunities to orchestrate.
The diamond formation used for a game and a half during this camp was an effort to get Bradley into more attacking zones with the ball. While that part of the formation worked, the defensive cover with Jermaine Jones on the field alongside Bradley held the American star up too much, making him hang back to protect too much defensively.
Simply put, the diamond didn't work because Bradley doesn't trust Jones to stay home. Even when Jones was actually doing his job, Bradley was in the wrong position because he wasn't expecting it to happen.
The formation worked better when Klinsmann put in Kyle Beckerman, but there's just no way the U.S. is going into the World Cup with Jones on the bench. Klinsmann needed to find a way to have Bradley and Jones work better in the center of the park.
Against Nigeria, Klinsmann may have found the answer. By putting both Beckerman and Jones in the defensive midfield, Klinsmann has freed up Bradley to control the game and push forward. He no longer had to worry about tracking back as much, because he trusts Beckerman to stay home.
The 4-2-3-1 formation seems less offensive than the 4-4-2 diamond, but it's not, converting to a free-flowing 4-1-3-2 when the United States had the ball. With Beckerman staying home and covering for both Jones and the wing full backs when they make a run, Bradley is more free to attack, distribute and trust his teammates.
When Bradley trusts those around him, magical things can happen.
The second Altidore goal on Saturday was the result of a turnover by Nigeria, cleared by Beasley on the back line to Jones, who was properly sitting back in a defensive role.
Immediately, Jones got the ball to Bradley, who was able to play higher up the field because of the five-man midfield formation. As you can see in this graphic, Bradley has space in transition and plenty of options. He could have been safe and passed it out wide to get space. He could have forced a through-ball to a cutting Dempsey, who had a center back bearing down on his back shoulder.
Instead, Bradley saw the field, took two dribbles and sent a long chip down the field, landing softly on Altidore's chest in the box, who took it down and hit it home.
Altidore's play was grand, but it was set up by Bradley's ability to create offense out of nowhere.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that the United States wasn't yet in the fine-tuning stages, still finding parts for the car they are taking to race in Brazil. But at least they had their engine. Bradley is that engine, and now that the rest of the parts are finally being put into place, Klinsmann still has the time to get everything tuned up just right.
That wouldn't be possible without Bradley.
He is one of the most important players for his team in the entire World Cup. If the United States is going to advance, a lot of things are going to have to break right.
The defense is going to have to be able to hold a lead better than it has. Altidore and Dempsey are going to have to play even better than they did against Turkey and Nigeria. Role players such as Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski, Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya are going to have to add some offensive spark.
A lot of things need to happen for the U.S. to have a chance at getting the result they hope in Brazil, but mostly their stars need to be stars. That starts with Bradley.