The two losses in Europe last week's friendlies must have left a bad taste in the mouth of US Men's soccer supporters and, if anything, ended a rather positive year on a down note.
But with the 2009 calendar now complete for Sam's Army, it's now time to look ahead to 2010 and the World Cup.
The success of the team in South Africa come next June depends on many factors. I'll address some of the most vital ones here:
We need a favorable draw on December 4th. Unless FIFA drastically changes how it seeds and places teams into pots for this upcoming World Cup, the US of A will likely be in a challenging group (top two teams advance to knockout play). In the 2006 World Cup, the USA was grouped with the Asian federation. If that happens again, here are what the 2010 pots may look like:
POT 1 (seeded teams plus host) -Brazil, Spain, Argentina, France, England, Italy, Germany, South Africa
POT 2 (UEFA) - Netherlands, Portugal, Denmark, Slovenia, Greece, Slovakia, Serbia, Switzerland
POT 3 (CONCACAF and Asia) - USA, Mexico, Honduras, South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand
POT 4 (CONMEBOL and CAF) - Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria
This would probably put the US in one of the more difficult groups, with a seeded team, a European team, and possibly an African team playing on home soil. Not good.
Fans should be hoping for something like this: South Africa, USA, Slovenia/Switzerland/Greece, and Chile (two teams from same federation cannot be grouped together). Or, if somehow the CAF and Asian federations are switched, you can replace Chile with North Korea.
Some may argue that the US should just take it's lumps and beat everyone, if they are to get better. This is simply not the case. The team will face difficult teams in any event in the second round, and FIFA looks at previous World Cup results in determining a team's seeding in the next World Cup, so it's important to advance. And getting in a more favorable group will make that easier.
We need to get and stay healthy. The injuries to Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies have been devastating, and it is hopeful that Onyewu and Jay DeMerit will recover in time to make the team.
If anything, these last two friendlies exposed the US team's lack of depth, so all the key players have to stay healthy and those who are in the process of recovering, i.e. Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu need to get healthy and contribute for this team to have any chance in June.
Bob Bradley has some decisions to make. Not only does he have to decide who to take to South Africa, but he also has to figure out some key position battles.
For instance, who will pair with Jozy Altidore up top? Jeff Cunningham showed something with his goal against Denmark, but will Bradley opt for a traditional holding forward such as Brian Ching or Conor Casey? What about Robbie Findley? It seems to me that he has a similar game to Charlie Davies and can possibly replace him. Also, would Bob experiment and move Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan to the striker position? Lots of questions here.
Who starts in the midfield? I believe that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will be our starting central midfield pairing if the latter gets healthy in time to gel with the team. I do see Dempsey moving up top with Altidore, leaving the right wing open for someone like Stuart Holden with Donovan on the left. I also see Benny Feilhaber and Robbie Rogers being substitutes on the left should Bob Bradley decide to move Donovan from the left to the right.
In the defense, injuries abound and questions remain other than Tim Howard as the stalwart in goal. Who will play left back? It seems Jonathan Bornstein is the starter in Bradley's mind, but you get the feeling Edgar Castillo (who got his first minutes with the team against Denmark at left mid) will get an audition there.
I would not discount Carlos Bocanegra moving there and using DeMerit and Onyewu in the middle, which was the lineup in the Confederations Cup in June. Otherwise, we'll see Bocanegra and Gooch in the middle, presuming the latter is healthy.
On the right, it appears Steve Cherundolo is the starter right now, but I can envision Bob utilizing Jonathan Spector off the bench or as a starter depending on the matchup, as Spector is a a better crosser of the ball than Cherundolo.
Here's my projected 23 right now assuming everyone is healthy:
Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Landon Donovan, Robbie Findley, Conor Casey
Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu/Ricardo Clark, Robbie Rogers
Defense: Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jonathan Bornstein, Edgar Castillo, Jay DeMerit, Chad Marshall
Goalkeepers: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Troy Perkins
Hope it all comes together and sprinkle in some luck. As we saw in the Confederations Cup and the U.S.'s deep run there, a lot of things need to come together for the U.S. to do well in an international tournament.
If you recall, the U.S. started the tournament off playing poorly, but then started catching fire playing a combination of a counterattack/possession game, finishing off most of the few scoring opportunities it had. Players like Altidore and Davies proved to be menacing in the scoring third, while Donovan was an effective playmaker. Bradley and Ricardo Clark broke up plays in the midfield and the back was solid, if not spectacular. The team played hard and for each other.
If this team can get healthy and get on the same page between now and June, it has a chance to advance out of group play in South Africa. If players can emerge in this interim, like Davies before them (Robbie Findley, Edgar Castillo, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu or someone else), the U.S. Men's National Team might catch lightning in a bottle and reach it's potential.
It all begins with some luck at the draw on December 4th.
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