With the last of the international friendlies underway and the 23-man roster selected, it's time to begin imagining a modicum of best and worst case scenarios for the U.S.
In the simplest of terms, there really is only one result for the World Cup: either you win or you don't. The best case scenario: you hold up the Jules Rimet Cup.
Worst case, your team loses all three games and statistically finishes in last place (something the U.S. is all too familiar with).
Thankfully, there are shades of gray. In a short 30 years, the United States has spent the last eight being a true top-25 team, which means that on any given day, the U.S. can upset any team.
That level of talent bodes well in a tournament where you only play a maximum of seven games. The possibility of winning against a better opponent rises, but, of course, the chances of winning against all of the better opponents remains quite low.
The U.S. can beat any team one out of 10 times, but will lose against that same team the other nine out of ten.
Being able to defeat any team on any given day is certainly something Americans can be proud of. It means that there's a chance of some memorable matches, like beating both Mexico and Portugal in 2002 (and conversely, not getting out of the first round in 2006).
So, within these parameters, what's the best and worse the United States can realistically achieve?
Best Case Scenario
At the very least, Americans dream big.
The 2010 project (USSF's plan to win a World Cup by 2010) was ambitious. Granted, it was a bit naive to believe that in 30 years, the money and resources of the United States could usurp the powers that have been at this for 100 years, but without an organized plan, the U.S. men's national team wouldn't be where it is today.
If the team doesn't win it all, what outcome allows the United States to continue moving forward?
The health, stability, and chemistry of the team has put the U.S. in its best position possible going into the summer, and the team's success at the Confederations Cup has only added to its mystique, but those accomplishments may have created some unrealistic expectations.
With arguably the best draw the United States have ever had, the team should make it to the second round; thus, moving beyond the group stage accomplishes little.
Real progress can't be gauged unless the team reaches the second round.
At that point, the summer's endeavor probably won't be viewed as a success unless the team moves on to the quarterfinals—meaning at least one win once the knockout stage begins.
Considering that the most likely scenario is a second-place finish in Group C, the United States could easily see Germany in the second round.
There's not a better scenario than a rematch of the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. Avenging the defeat would soothe the wounds of many an American fan. A win over Germany would make any eventual exit moot.
While some would argue that returning to the quarterfinals doesn't continue America's progress (the team's been there before), beating Germany on the way does. The success would make for a memorable tournament.
But wouldn't the best case scenario be a first-place finish in the group with a surprise win over England?
Certainly, and upsetting England along the way to a win over Germany would make for one of the greatest tournament story lines.
Even if the United States beats England, in all likelihood, the U.S. would probably finish in second.
The emotional and physical crash from the win would more than likely lead to a loss or tie later in the group stage, especially once one considers that Bradley would most likely rest his best if the team has already qualified.
Plus, England would be heavily pressured to finish out its final games with wins and on top of Group C.
If Germany doesn't finish on top of its group, then, depending on the competition (Ghana, Serbia, or Australia), a win—or at least an exciting, last-minute defeat—could probably be stomached by most American fans.
Anything less would be a disappointment, and nothing would be as exciting as a win against England and Germany.
In the end, the best case scenario: advance from the group, a win over Germany, advance to the quarterfinals, and a repeat of the 1950 "Miracle on Grass" with a win over England.
Finally, as far as individual performances are concerned, there's a tremendous amount at stake.
Donovan, Dempsey, and Altidore all need strong performances in order to garner the most interest from European clubs.
Productive tournaments for the first two could turn the heads of the richest and biggest. For Altidore, he needs to repair his tarnished reputation (his club coach has criticized his work ethic in practice) and, frankly, score.
Final judgements haven't been made over his inability to find the net, but if he logs a zero, his value continues to drop.
Many have predicted Michael Bradley becomes the next big American thing, but really the bulk of the team's youngsters have to perform.
By 2014, the core of this team will be in or near their 30s. There needs to be clear heirs in multiple positions, like some relief for Donovan and Dempsey in the midfield, and new starters in the defense.
Yes, there is another qualification cycle to discover new talent, but it would be nice to have a peek at which bench players will most likely fill some of those roles.
Worst Case Scenario
Most American fans have pessimism ingrained in their soccer psyches. The inability of teams past to reach their potential have warped the fans' minds.
Forty years between qualifications (until 1990), disappointment in 1998 and 2006, and a lack of success against European sides has led U.S. supporters to expect the worst. There really is no telling what many are considering as the worst possibilities for 2010.
Outside of losing all of their group stage games, the worst situation would be a failure to advance on goal differential.
Unfortunately, this outcome could very well occur.
Earlier this week, England beat Mexico in an international warm-up 3-1. The majority of the English press was concerned over Mexico's ability to control large stretches of the game, and a number recognized that Mexico could have won if their finishing was a little bit better.
Normally, this would be encouraging for the United States. The U.S. is at the very least on par competitively with Mexico. So, if the England-Mexico friendly is an indicator, the U.S. should have a decent chance of drawing or winning the game.
Unfortunately, what gave Mexico a fighting chance is exactly the type of game the U.S. does not emulate, and the 2010 English strategy is particularly dangerous to Bradley's team.
England chose to pressure Mexico's backs aggressively. Only the calm, short-pass play and dribbling skills of Mexico's young and talented midfielders allowed the team to survive the pressure.
American's backs and midfielders don't do so well with such pressure. During the Netherlands friendly in March, the Dutch displayed the same high pressure approach, and the U.S. defense chose to play ambitious long-balls in response. The inability of the midfield and forwards to hold onto the passes disrupted any sort of offensive flow the team tried to create.
That game ended 2-1 on a late goal by Bocanegra off of a set piece. Otherwise, there was little offense by the U.S.
The problem is further compounded by England's desire to attack with speed on the flanks. James Milner, Theo Walcott, and even Glen Johnson (who scored a goal in the contest) pushed forward.
The speed and skill on the English outside has the potential to overwhelm the slower American defense. With the problems at left back and a lack of proper cover from the outside midfielders, there could be two or three goals in the first 45 minutes.
If this happens, it could be the difference between advancement and a very early exit.
Slovenia had the second best defence in European, qualifying behind the Netherlands (which played two fewer games). If the England-U.S. game gets out of hand—say 3-0 or 4-0—and both Slovenia and the United States end up with an equal record (say a win, loss and draw against each other), it could go down to goal differential.
Tack on some injuries to high-profile players, an inability to score (not out of the realm of possibility), poor performances by bench players, and some problematic tactics (all of this has happened to the United States during qualification by the way), and the 2010 World Cup could become an embarrassment.
What's worse, it could set back the progress that this team has gained over the past four years. Once again, the world would look at the United States as a team that gets lucky once in a while, and, individually, add one or two role players to a European club.
Viewed through the eyes of the sports pessimist, what one considers the greatest draw America has ever received could easily become a recipe for disaster.
What will most likely happen will be something somewhere in between. The U.S., both individually or as a team, will surprise some people, and the team will have some disappointments, as well as some individuals, and will at some point, be eliminated—that is, if they don't win it all.
But for any rabid fan, winning it all really is the only realistic outcome. Anything else is the worst case scenario.
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