Clint Dempsey Key To USA Advancing from Group Stage at World Cup

Mike LevittContributor IDecember 8, 2009

CHICAGO - JUNE 06: The starting 11 players for the United States (Back L-R) Clint Dempsey #8, Jozy Altidore #17, Jonathan Spector #12, Carlos Bocanegra #3,Tim Howard #1, Oguchi Onyewu #5, Conor Casey #11; (Front L-R) Ricardo Clark #2, Pablo  Mastroeni #4, Landon Donovan #10 and Jonathan Bornstein #13 pose before a FIFA 2010 World Cup Qualifying match against Honduras on June 6, 2009 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I am sick and tired of reading previews for the World Cup that have horrendous breakdowns of the United States' chances. People don't seem to know what they are talking about, and I want to set the record straight. 

Everybody knows the Americans got a dream draw. After their opening game against England on June 12, they play Slovenia and Algeria on June 18 and 23, respectively.

On paper, the USA have their best chance to advance from the group stages for only the second time in the nation's history. They got the draw. They have the convenient fixture schedule of minimal travel within the country, as all their games are within 60 km of each other.

But as we all know, nothing matters until game day. And that is six months from now. 

Over the next six months, the key for the United States will be to get healthy and receive quality minutes in European leagues.

While more Americans ply their trade in Europe than ever before, a good amount of national team stalwarts are role players at the club level, who do not see regular minutes.

First, lets talk about getting healthy. Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Demerit have both been injured for extended periods of time. We are talking about the core of the American defense here.

Onyewu, who got hurt against Costa Rica while on national team duty last month, will be out for six months. That is a lot of rehab and a lot of missed opportunities that would have come playing with resurgent AC Milan. Don't get me wrong, I'm not so sure he'd be playing much anyway, but the experience of training with a club of that caliber is hard to beat.

Demerit just got back onto the pitch on Dec. 7, when he came on as a halftime substitute for Watford against Queens Park Rangers in the Coca-Cola Championship.

His return to form will give USA coach Bob Bradley at least one good night's sleep in the months to come. 

The mammoth hole left by Onyewu (both physically and metaphorically) will most likely be filled by either Carlos Bocanegra or Chad Marshall, the latter of which plays in the MLS and isn't my first-choice replacement, given the magnitude of the event and the importance of the position.

The right-back position, in my eye, has been secured by Jonathon Spector, who routinely sees starts for struggling West Ham.

All that experience for a struggling club has allowed the young right-back the opportunity to test his metal, so to speak, and he seems to be passing.

No stranger to long runs up the flank, and a strong deliverer of the ball, Spector could be a huge weapon for the Americans in South Africa.

Along with Steve Cherundolo, who is in line to start at left-back if Bocanegra moves inside, Spector gives the USA an attacking option from the back, something essential at the international level.

The midfield is another question mark for Bob Bradley. Yes, his son Michael will start in the center. That's all we know for sure. We know that Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan will both start, but with the injury to Charlie Davies, one of them may move up front.

Jermaine Jones, the German-convert who, when healthy, starts in the Schalke 04 midfield, will be the wild card. He has just recently returned to training and should be featured in upcoming friendlies when he is fit.

His experience, grit, and possession ability will go a long way in controlling an American midfield incapable of dictating the flow. He is needed to show his potential national teammates the way to keep their composure.

Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, and Benny Fielhaber will most likely round out the midfield spots.

What a crushing blow to the Americans the loss of Davies will be. The 23-year-old was finally becoming the goal scorer that America has been waiting so long for.

His searing pace and industrious approach earned him a starting role at Sochaux before the near-fatal car crash in the wee hours of the morning outside of Washington, D.C., that almost took his life, let alone any hopes of playing professionally again.

Hopefully, his recovery will be quick and successful. Only time will tell.

This leaves a gaping hole up front that either Dempsey or Donovan will have to fill. Although both are more effective as wingers at the international level, both have experience in big games up front and Bradley would be wise to stick with experience here.

Connor Casey, Brian Ching, Jeff Cunningham (I can name more) are all pathetic choices at this level. None has the technical ability. I just don't have the confidence that any of them can put the ball in the back of the net.

Kenny Cooper sees sporadic minutes for 1860 Munich and will probably see some minutes in upcoming friendlies.

I wouldn't be surprised if Eddie Johnson, who is tearing it up in Fulham reserve games and is a regular fixture on the first-team substitute's bench, makes this team as a fourth or fifth striker. 

I am intrigued by what Jozy Altidore's progress over the second half of the Premiership season will be. Nobody doubts his size and his ability to receive the ball with his back to goal. He has the pace. He has the technical ability.

Hull manager Phil Brown has said publicly how much he likes the teen-ager and how much the experience this season will help the young international this summer.

Let's hope all that praise leads to some goals when it counts. And not on lucky shots right at the goalkeeper like the one against Spain in the Confed Cup. See the corner. Hit the corner.

I don't care if he whines or fights with David Beckham, Landon Donovan is playing the best football of his career.

Undoubtedly the most dangerous American while running at defenders, Donovan has shown in recent months that he is unafraid and confident he can play with the best in the world.

After impressing at the Confederations Cup, Donovan made headlines when he went to Bayern Munich on loan before Jurgen Klinsmann got the boot.

Today, rumors swirl about a possible permanent move to the continent. If he is ever going to do it again—for the third time—this January's transfer window is the time.

He is 27 years old and won't get the chance to play in Europe again. This is the perfect time. He needs to jump at the opportunity if the right one comes. 

Finally, there is Dempsey. The single most important American right now. In only his third full season with the west London club, Dempsey has already made 73 Premier League starts.

He has solidified his role as an essential cog whether on his favored right wing, in a center attacking-midfield role, or even as a fill-in striker.

Since Oct. 25, when Dempsey scored the equalizer against Man City, he has netted five times and has become his club's leading scorer.

Perhaps most telling sign of the respect his teammates hold for him is the fact that he routinely takes his side's direct free kicks. Not many Americans at this level can say they have been acknowledged and respected as a man who can strike the ball.

For the USA to make a deep run, Dempsey needs to lead by example. His teammates will look to him for a bit of class and maybe some heroics similar to his swinging side-volley that crept just inside the post, giving his side an early 1-0 lead in the ill-fated Confederations Cup final against Brazil.

He has proved his worth in the world's best league and hopefully he can lead his country into uncharted football territory.


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