2010 WORLD CUP PREVIEW: USA
After last summer’s promising Confederations Cup Campaign, which included some famous results like the 2-0 defeat of Spain, the then-number one team in the world, and a 2-0 halftime lead against Brazil, the current world number one, expectations for Team USA going into South Africa are at an all-time high.
The United States qualified easily, topping a group containing teams like Mexico, Costa Rica, and Trinidad & Tobago, all of whom qualified for Germany 2006, but failed to present any real obstacles in what turned out to be a surprisingly smooth qualifying campaign for the United States.
England: June 12
Slovenia: June 18
Algeria: June 23
The World Cup draw has pitted England against the USA for the first time since 1950, when the amateur USA team defeated England 1-0 in what is widely considered one of the greatest World Cup upsets of all time. England is still smarting from that humiliation, and will look to avenge that loss in Game 1 in Rustenburg, and with their quality, a draw would be a respectable result for the USA.
The USA’s next games are significantly easier, facing Algeria, in only their 3rd World Cup and their first since 1986, and Slovenia, who despite overcoming Russia, are still outsiders in this World Cup. Game 2 against Slovenia will be held on June 18th in Johannesburg, and game 3 against Algeria will be held on June 23rd in Pretoria. All 3 of the USA’s games are in stadiums at an altitude of over 1000m, which could become a problem for both sides.
Expect the USA to play defensively in hopes of a draw in their opening game against England, who is the favorite to top the group, and then switch to a more attacking philosophy to get all 3 points against Slovenia and Algeria, who are relatively inexperienced World Cup campaigners.
The USA’s all-time assist and goals leader, Landon Donavan, has never looked better. Fresh off a successful loan spell in the Premier League at Everton, Donavan is the beating heart of the USA’s midfield, capable of playing the killer pass to the forwards, crossing, and scoring on his own; Coach Bob Bradley will most likely play him in an advanced midfield role or on the wing to take advantage of these attributes. He is widely recognized as the USA’s best-ever player, and his performances will be key to the USA’s chances of progression.
Another player to watch is goalkeeper Tim Howard, also playing for Everton. His form has been an integral part of Everton’s excellent form in the 2nd half of the season. With a back-line that has plagued by questionable form and injury recently, Coach Bob Bradley will sleep much easier knowing a pair of safe hands is protecting his goal.
Finally, after suffering a long injury lay-off, forward Clint Dempsey has forced his way back into the Fulham starting 11 with a spectacular chipped goal against Juventus in the Europa league that sealed Fulham’s qualification for the semi-final and a solid run of form in league play in the past few weeks. He may play on the wing for the USA, but either way they will need him firing on all cylinders if they are to have any hope of advancing past the round of 16.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
One of the USA’s most prominent strengths is their physical style of play. This was most evident in last year’s Confederations Cup semi-final against Spain, when they were able to bully Spain’s smaller midfield players off the ball, and prevented them from getting into their usual passing rhythm in midfield.
This is not to suggest that Team USA plays physically to compensate for their lack of quality. Far from it. Team USA have a fantastic playmaker in Landon Donavan and possess forwards like Jozy Altidore and Eddy Johnson who have the pace and physical stature to trouble any opposition defense.
Despite these qualities going forward, the USA does have problems in defense. Injuries to key players like Oguchi Onyewu and the poor recent form of Jonathan Spector have many questioning the USA’s once solid back line. Furthermore, both captain Carlos Bocanegra and central defender Jay DeMerit are 30 now, and have lost the turn of pace they once had, leaving the USA vulnerable to quicker opposition forwards.
However, the USA’s biggest weakness is their mental strength in the face of huge expectations. In Germany 2006, many expected Team USA to have a breakthrough tournament, yet they exited at the group stage with a record of 1 draw and 2 losses.
On the other hand, when seen as underdogs, the USA have tended to perform at their best—just look at last summer’s semi-final against Spain in which Team USA ran out deserved 2-0 winners. However, as soon as there was a glimmer of expectation against Brazil in the final, Team USA contrived to lose 3-2 despite taking a 2-0 lead into halftime. The USA will have to step up their mental stability if they are to have any hope of advancing past the round of 16 or even the group stage.
IT WOULD BE A GREAT WORLD CUP IF
The USA advances to the quarter-finals. The USA’s best-ever finish at a World Cup was 3rd place in the inaugural 1930 tournament. Since then, the best Team USA has managed was a quarter-final exit in Korea/Japan 2002. This USA team is better than the one in 2002, but in order to advance past the round of 16 they will probably have to overcome international giants Germany. If the USA could accomplish this, they will finally be seen as a competitive force on the international soccer scene, and prove that last summer’s defeat of Spain was no fluke.
IT WOULD BE A DISASTER IF
The USA fails to get out of the group stage. As with Germany 2006, expectations are high for Team USA. If the USA loses to either Slovenia or Algeria, advancing suddenly becomes much harder. They are expected to lose to England, so a second loss to either team would almost certainly condemn them to a group-stage exit, which would be another huge disappointment for a team that has looked so promising in the past year or so. Neither team is an easy opponent: Slovenia knocked Russia out, while Algeria beat eternal rivals Egypt in World Cup qualifying play-offs, so the USA must be prepared to fight for their lives.
Team USA is the favorite to finish 2nd in their group and I think they will. Despite the weight of expectations, players of Landon Donavan’s quality will not allow Team USA to drop points against relative minnows Slovenia and Algeria.
However, this is where the road ends for the USA. Germany may be an aging team with less quality than in 2006, but they remain a force to be reckoned with and are tournament specialists, reserving their best performances for the biggest stage.
Furthermore, Germany will not be intimidated by the USA’s physical presence the way Spain was, as their players have the same qualities. They were also the ones who sent Team USA home in Korea in 2002 with a 1-0 win, and should again dispatch the USA with relative ease, unfortunately. If Germany slip-up though, the confidence such a win would give Team USA could inspire them onto the semi-finals or even further.