One of the major questions facing Bob Bradley's team this summer is injuries.
Forward Charlie Davies is still trying to get back into game shape following his horrific car crash last fall, while lead defender Oguchi Onyewu has not played since tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee in October. He has been progressing well lately, as his recovery time was said to be around six months. Onyewu should be ready for South Africa barring any setbacks.
Bradley will announce the 30-man preliminary roster on May 11, but claims only 16-18 of those spots are set. The Americans' final 23-man roster is due to FIFA on June 1, a day after the team is set to leave for South Africa.
Typically, fitness and durability are the main concerns for players coming off of major injuries, and Bradley has had a close eye on Davies and Onyewu lately. One thing known for sure is that both players will work very hard to make the team, and they will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves to their coach in the next month.
The Americans have a training camp at Princeton University from May 17-23, and then play friendly matches on home soil against the Czech Republic and Turkey later in May.
Injury concerns aside, the United States is eager to prove that their runs in the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup were no fluke. They reached the championship game in each of those competitions, even defeating international powerhouse Spain 2-0 in the Confederations Cup semifinals.
England: June 12
Slovenia: June 18
Algeria: June 23
Unlike in 2006, the group stage draw was friendly to the United States. They are not considered to be in the “group of death” this time around, and have a fair chance of advancing through to the round of 16.
Another advantage is the lack of travel required for the Yanks. Their three first round sites (Rustenburg, Johannesburg, and Pretoria) are all close to one another, and require less than 100 miles of travel each. They were fortunate to avoid far-away sites such as Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, where they would have had to travel several hundred miles between matches.
The first match against England will be a great measuring stick for the United States. The Three Lions and star striker Wayne Rooney will be the favorites to win the group, and coming away with points in the match will be a big confidence boost for the Americans.
The US will have to stay disciplined defensively, and look to counter when they have the chance. They must replicate their effort against Spain in the Confederations Cup, where they would “bend but not break,” yet take full advantage of their attacking opportunities.
Next they take on the youthful and surprising team from Slovenia, whose only World Cup appearance prior to this year was in 2002 when they were ousted in the first round. The final group match sees the US facing Algeria, who also lacks World Cup experience.
It has been 24 years since the Desert Foxes have made the competition, and they too have never made it out of the first round. The US has the all-important experience advantage in both of these contests, and if they play well-rounded games they have a great chance of winning both.
The injury concerns for the Americans make Landon Donovan's performance that much more important. The attacking midfielder has the most caps of all active players with 121, and also is the US all-time leader in scoring and assists. He has scored 42 goals internationally, and will be relied on as both a scorer and a mentor in South Africa.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard is also a big factor for the Americans, especially with some questions on the defensive side. Howard will need to be in top form regardless of the defensive lineup, and his performance against England in the opener will be especially important.
If Davies cannot play for the Americans, a lot more pressure will be placed on the young shoulders of forward Jozy Altidore. The 20-year-old will be playing in his first World Cup, and will be one of the team's main scoring threats despite his inexperience. It is hopeful that the veteran presence of Donovan, Howard, and others, such as defender Carlos Bocanegra will help him along.
Strengths and Weaknesses
One strength of this US side is their experience. Donovan, Howard, Bocanegra, and others will be playing in their second and third World Cups, which is always a good thing. Their experience should rub off on the younger players like Altidore, and midfielders Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu.
American youth will be thought of as an X-factor, and if the veteran leadership can instill some maturity and consistency, the Americans have a great chance to get out of the group stage.
A weakness for the Yanks is their lack of firepower. When compared to the attackers on the best teams in the competition, the US does not measure up. This weakness will become even more glaring if Davies cannot play, and will call for the Americans to be even more precise on the defensive side of the ball.
It Would Be a Great World Cup If
The Americans make it out of the group stage and win at least one match in the knockout rounds. Simply getting to the knockout phase will not be enough for this group, as they believe they can provide an upset or two once they get there. A round of 16 match against Germany is possible, so the chance for a major upset could come right away.
It Would Be a Disaster If
The US is eliminated in the group stage. While England will be favored to win the opening match, and hardly anyone will be surprised with a loss, the next two matches are a different story. Slovenia and Algeria are certainly quality teams, but the Americans will be favored in both contests. The US is eager to follow up on their great run in 2009, and will be very disappointed with an early exit this summer.
Watching the US closely in their recent competitions has me excited for this World Cup. Their defeat of Spain in the Confederations Cup was truly remarkable to watch, and proved that on the right day this team can play with (and even defeat) anyone. Bob Bradley has made believers out of his players, and they will no doubt play hard for him.
I predict an advancement out of the group stage, and a victory in the round of 16 before bowing out admirably in the quarterfinals.