The qualification cycle for 2010 isn't even officially complete yet, but bold predictions are already being thrown around like confetti.
In the wake of the United States' 3-2 victory over Honduras in San Pedro Sula, both USSF President Sunil Gulati and striker Charlie Davies have come out and said that the US has what it takes to make a run at the World Cup title in South Africa next summer.
It's a nice sentiment, but don't go buy tickets for the final yet, US fans.
US supporters would be positively ecstatic if the Americans were somehow able to take home the World Cup Trophy. I would probably kick off a week-long bender by running around town draped in nothing but an American flag singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the top of my lungs while simultaneously shooting off fireworks and pouring a gallon of Sierra Nevada down my throat.
But please folks, let's try and be realistic. A trophy would be the most exciting thing to happen to the US footballing community ever, but if we start to drink the kool-aid like Gulati and Davies, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.
The US program is better than it has ever been. The 3-2 victory in Honduras was a gritty one, a match that previous squads would likely have failed to win. But they still have a long way to go before it can break through and become a true contender on the world stage. They're a good group of players, but not quite elite.
When you compare the US to an elite team like Spain or Brazil, there's one notable difference—the ability to finish a match. When one of the world's elite gets a lead, they will most likely be able to hold onto that lead and go home with three points.
In recent matches, the US has shown the ability to take the lead, but not always hold it. Against Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final, the US lost a two-goal lead and eventually the match. They took a one-goal lead at the Azteca against Mexico, and ended up losing 2-1.
An elite team would not lose these leads. If you disagree with this assessment, you'll likely point to the victory against Spain as proof that the US can hold a lead and finish a match.
That's a valid point, but you've got to remember that the victory came as a result of a historic defensive effort by the US back line. Spain outshot the US by a wide margin, they just couldn't make their chances count against an inspired US defense.
If you take a look at the final, the defense failed to hold a lead in nearly identical circumstances. Against both Spain and Brazil, the US was up 2-0 and had retreated into a defensive shell. The Spanish weren't able to penetrate the defensive wall, but Brazil was successful.
Both Davies and Gulati mentioned the Spain match specifically, but noticeably shied away from mentioning Brazil.
I don't want to take anything away from the monumental effort exerted by every American player in the victory against Spain. They played fantastically and deserve all the credit. But, the 3-2 loss to Brazil showed that the defense wasn't quite up to the level of the forwards and midfielders. They're still prone to lapses which cost them victories.
The tandem of Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies, with Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley supporting in midfield, can now score against most countries. Davis and Altidore arguably have the potential to become world-class strikers, with their fantastic blend of speed and strength. The offense is not a weak link in this side.
As good as the offense has been, it's defense that wins championships. You can't expect to win trophies in football if your back line keeps shipping goals to the opposition.
The US needs a few more defenders in the mold of Jonathan Spector and Oguchi Onyewu if they're to make the jump from "good" to "elite." Onyewu and Spector are physical defenders with the athletic ability to bother both the big, powerful strikers and the small, speedy goalscorers.
As defenders continue to develop and go through the US program, we'll see the US National Team begin to pick up wins against the elite national teams with greater frequency. This will be a slow process though, certainly not something that will be achieved in the space of less than a year.
Just a few months ago, DaMarcus Beasley was filling in at left back. He wasn't the solution, and the US still has a gaping hole at that position. Perhaps Edgar Castillo will be the answer when FIFA finally gets through his paperwork and allows him to play with the US.
For now, the US needs to focus on developing the defenders that are currently in the national team fold. Trust that the offense will be okay, and try and develop a world-class defense.
If the US continues to improve at a steady rate up until they ship out to South Africa, a quarterfinal or semifinal berth won't be out of the question. They've been there before and this team is more skilled all around the field than the 2002 edition.
Taking the step into a World Cup Trophy isn't happening next summer though, but it's not too far over the horizon.