2010 FIFA World Cup: 10 Questions Facing Team USA Before Kickoff
We're one week away from the initial kick-off of the World Cup, and just a tad more away from the highly anticipated England-USA match.
The national team have finally commanded the spotlight, and all American eyes will be on this national team as they navigate through the Cup in South Africa.
The team experienced a generally positive "Send-Off Series" that saw Americans stage a second-half comeback to beat a good Turkish side 2-1.
Coach Bob Bradley definitely learned about his team through these friendly matches, and the general public can all but hope that he'll have the team prepared for kick-off on June 12.
Our team definitely has questions that Bradley will need to answer leading up to kick-off, however.
Here are 10 questions that Bob Bradley will have to navigate and solve to organize a successful World Cup campaign.
All eyes are finally watching on this team, and the team needs to respond. The state of soccer in the United States may just depend on it.
1) How will the defense shape up with Onyewu and DeMerit on the mend?
As much as fans want to bask in the US's World Cup glory days of 1950 and 1998, the US men's national team now has different players, a different coach, and an entirely different set of expectations.
If we do want to tap into the past in an effort to prognosticate about the US's World Cup chances, a better analog would perhaps be the squad we saw during the Confederations Cup last year.
Minus an injured Charlie Davies, coach Bob Bradley brings essentially the same squad: one that focused on a tight and composed, bend-but don't-break defense and overcame all odds to squash Egypt, stun Spain, and surprise Brazil for the first 50 minutes of the cup final.
The US most likely needs to employ a similar strategy if it wants to advance beyond the Second Round, since it currently does not have to the skill to out-possess and dominate teams.
Thus, a healthy Onyewu and DeMerit pairing is integral to any success the US encounters in the World Cup. I couldn't give you a VORP stat of Onyewu and DeMerit over Goodson and Bocanegra (in the middle), but I'm sure its substantial subjectively speaking.
There's a reason AC Milan signed Onyewu (even if it was on the cheap) and DeMerit established himself as an extremely reliable stalwart with Watford (going back to their days in the Premiership).
Teams such as England in the group stage and Germany or Serbia in the second round will control possession and take many shots, and the US needs a sturdy Onyewu and DeMerit pairing in the middle commanding the defense.
2) Who pairs with Michael Bradley in the midfield?
Although it's general consensus that the team's strengths lie in goal and the midfield, not much consensus exists over who plays alongside Michael Bradley in the central midfield.
Many fans have recently started vouching for Jose Torres to start, but there is really only one player who should start alongside Bradley—Ricardo Clark.
It's a shame that Jermaine Jones couldn't recover from him shin injury quickly enough to make the World Cup squad, because he would have been a lock to start alongside Bradley in the midfield.
The best teams all have one great defensive midfielder protecting the back-line—Gilberto Silva with Brazil, Patrick Vieira with France, Esteban Cambiasso with Argentina (my implicit criticism of Maradona), etc.—and Jones could have provided something close for the national team.
Clark, fortunately, offers a similar defensive tenacity, bite, and enforcer quality that will protect our defense. While Bradley also is effective defensively, he is also perhaps our best—and only—box-to-box midfielder.
Clark's presence will springboard Bradley to make forward runs, utilize his passing abilities, and open up our attack.
When you consider who the United States will matchup with in its first few World Cup matches, the case for Clark should be all the more clear.
The United States will never be able to out-possess superior technical teams such as England and Spain, and must play accordingly. American players can't pretend to play like the Spanish and expect Spanish-like results (oh the irony). Against England, the US will plan around hassling Wayne Rooney and containing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard.
The importance of a solid defensive midfielder is magnified when we consider the tendencies of England's top players—Rooney likes to drop deep to collect the ball, while Gerrard and Lampard both like to move forward and control the center attacking space.
Both Clark and Bradley will need to be alert and clamp down this middle zone, both to nullify England's playmakers and force the Three Lions to play a more predictable game down the wings. Even if Peter Crouch plays, I'd take our chances with that sort of England game.
Furthermore, since Gerrard and Lampard both like to move forward, the additional cover provided by Clark will allow Bradley to move around and exploit open space. Since we will play a counter-attacking game, open space equates to opportunities.
If Capello plays a 4-2-3-1 with a fit Garreth Barry (or Parker should he have been chosen on the squad) in midfield and Gerrard as a support striker, Clark would be needed. If he plays a 4-4-2 with Gerrard and Lampard in the middle, Clark would provide the defensive cover needed to allow Bradley to make plays.
All-in-all, Clark is a more-established player than his fellow midfield competitors, and that should see him in the Starting XI against England and beyond.
Torres may be an extremely talented player who can do great things for the national team in the future (and put in an amazing performance that changed the game dynamic against Turkey), but Clark will help us beat England more than Torres will.
3) Will Bob Bradley be ready to adapt and adjust?
Bob Bradley seems like a nice guy. He goes about his business, seems human (that interview after the Spain win put a huge smile on my face), and has helped this team reach new heights and expectations.
He helped us legitimately beat Spain, of all things, and has been successful wherever he has managed.
Most importantly, Bradley has been extremely cognizant of our team's greatest strength—athleticism and strength—and built our team dynamic and philosophy around these attributes.
Accordingly, he's stood pretty firm with a 4-4-2 formation that suits the team's strengths and hides its weaknesses.
Some have criticized Bradley for being stubborn and rigid in the formation and player selection (consistently selecting players like Ching, Casey, and Bornstein), but the team has won and that's the bottom line.
But this American team is ready to take the next step, and needs to take the next step to advance soccer in the United States.
Bradley, as the leader of this team, is going to have to help the team break the ceiling. He needs to bring his 'A' game and prove to doubters that he's not a tactical neophyte.
He needs to make the impact adjustments and substitutions that can give the team an extra edge in the World Cup.
He's going to have to adjust, and realize that maybe a 4-2-3-1 or a "Christmas Tree" 4-3-2-1 may be the right formation for our team.
He'll have to know when Holden or Torres needs to come in and help calm the team and control the ball, when it's appropriate to bring in our Teddy Sheringham, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to take the game.
When Fabio Capello stands a couple feet away in England's technical area, Bradley needs to prove the he can face the challenge and single-handedly advance the state of soccer in the United States.
The success of the national team in the World Cup has many repercussions, and Bradley can control the success of the national team.
4) How do we replace Charlie Davies?
Charlie Davies was an integral part of the national team's recent success—he provided good finishing ability with blistering pace and a understanding of timed runs.
He was the X-factor in the team's success in the Confederations Cup, and was primed to break out in this upcoming World Cup.
His near-fatal injuries sustained in the NOVA car accident he was involved in eventually dashed his Cup chances, although we're all lucky that he's alive and close to fitness.
Davies' absence, however, is undoubtedly a huge loss that hurts the quality of the starting side and the bench. Without Davies, the team only has one quality striker—Jozy Altidore—that it can start.
The natural Davies replacement would be Robbie Findley—which somewhat explains his selection by Bradley—due to his similar pace and playing style.
Findley, however, lacks the technical ability that made Davies a starter and impact player. Findley showed glimpses of his impact ability during the friendly against Turkey, but I think he will be limited to substitute appearances (as it should be).
Another solution would be sliding Dempsey into Davies' position in the 4-4-2 or into more of a supporting striker role, although that move would screw up the rest of the formation and the flexibility that Bradley is afforded with Dempsey's wide midfielder role.
I would like to see Bradley employ a 4-2-3-1 with Dempsey in a more advanced striking role, which would allow Dempsey to play more of a support striker role and have more opportunities at goal.
Whether Bradley adjusts will answer the previous question, and this question too.
5) Can Jozy Altidore work alone up top?
Simple answer: not effectively. And if he's not entirely fit because of this nicked ankle: no.
Altidore can start up top as a lone striker, but he will need help from his teammates.
While he possesses the physical tools to thrive up front and make some magic, we can't expect him to be Wayne Rooney.
He's shown a knack for finding space, but that confidence and savvy often correlates with club form.
Considering his poor form at Hull, he's not finding that space as often and easy and is clearly still developing tactical savvy.
He's not necessarily gushing with confidence, and that's half of what a striker needs to be successful.
Altidore's still the team's best striker by far, and will need to perform for the team to advance deep into the tournament. He'll just need attacking help, and that's where Bob Bradley and tactics come in.
If Bradley configures a formation that enables Donovan and Dempsey to advance forward and make plays with the ball on his feet, Altidore will find open space to score (much like he did against Turkey on the Donovan pass).
He has good finishing ability, and will score if given the chance. I'm just skeptical that he'll be able to be the difference in buildup play, although he could just as well pull a Capdevila goal out of his bag of tricks.
6) Where should Clint Dempsey play?
Landon Donovan may be the best American player, but Clint Dempsey is arguably the most important player.
Dempsey's unique blend of ability and versatility will play a crucial role in the United States' chances in the 2010 World Cup, since his position will affect who else starts in midfield or attack. Dempsey's selected position will undoubtedly have a trickle-down effect.
However, we shouldn't be tempted to put Dempsey as a forward simply because he can score goals. Bradley attempted to pair Dempsey in attack with Altidore, and Dempsey was widely ineffective.
It isn't surprising, considering he hasn't paired with Altidore before and prefers to play on the wing.
Dempsey provides skill on the ball and is good and tough on his feet. Playing on the wing gives him space to move around and create opportunities out of nowhere, which we have seen on occasion in the form of goals.
Additionally, Dempsey reminds me of Philip Lahm when he cuts the ball inside, since he has the ability to buckle defenders and give them fits.
All in all, Dempsey fits better on the wing for the US for two reasons: he is a team enabler, and he matches up better on the wing.
His movement and ability on the wing find ways to create opportunities for himself and his teammates, and also match him up primarily with the England right wing and right back, much less intimidating than Gareth Barry and the English center-half pairing.
Dempsey's starts on the wing also give Bradley the option to shift him to the forward later on, when he already has a feel for game movements and soft spots on the defense.
He essentially serves as an on-pitch substitution, which provides invaluable flexibility for Bradley and positively affects the team.
7) Will Landon Donovan finally break through as a top player?
So Clint Dempsey may arguably the American's most important player, but Landon Donovan is still the best American player.
Landon, as the leader of this national team, needs to show up big in order for the United States to advance past the group stages of the World Cup.
Donovan showed that he is capable of taking the next step with performances at Everton that have already made him a fan favorite, and he'll need to play similarly with his American team.
Donovan wasn't particularly prolific at Everton, but he scored important goals and provided energy, effort, and a great amount of composure and passion that endeared fans and every soccer fan outside of the United States.
Donovan, who has a reputation for wilting domestically, has to opportunity to establish himself as an American legend, and it starts here.
Similar to his stint at Everton (which will hopefully become permanent, for his sake), all he needs to do is play very hard and lead by example. His team will follow.
Even the likes of Messi aren't immune from domestic criticism, and Landon will have every opportunity to "prove" himself and help his team perform at the biggest stage. His career would be so much more complete if he did.
Tactically speaking, a prolific Donovan would keep Ashley Cole in check, forcing him to quell his attacking instincts and defend.
Cole is one of the best left-backs in the world, and provides an influential all-around force at left-back. Cole restricted to defending Donovan would give Bob Bradley one less thing to worry about.
8) Do we have ourselves an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer?
Coach Bob Bradley took a risk in leaving the more-established Brian Ching home in favor of in-form goal scorers Edson Buddle and Hercules Gomez. But it surely was a calculated decision, and one that makes sense.
Ching is a quintessential target man, and he wouldn't be an impact goalscorer. Ching would be a good replacement should a starting player like Altidore not be fit, but he's not an impact player off the bench and isn't international quality as a starter.
On the other hand, Buddle and Gomez can be impact players off the bench, and Bradley selected both of them for that exact purpose.
Gomez scored a good goal off the bench against the Czech Republic, and Bradley will hope for similar results in the World Cup.
Often these in-form goal scorers simply have a knack for goal, whether it be in a limited time frame or starter's minutes.
Impact subs bring energy and renewed enthusiasm that wouldn't be present from starters; Gomez, Buddle, and Dempsey moving to striker can bring just that.
We may find ourselves down or tied and needing a goal in the closing minutes, and it will be up to the likes of Gomez and Buddle to demonstrate the American Spirit and capitalize on the opportunity the supporting players provide them.
9) Who's going to make a name for himself during this tournament?
Every American player has something to prove in the World Cup. Tim Howard can finally assert himself as one of the top keepers in the world, rather than a top keeper.
Onyewu can prove that he's fit and ready to become a top-class defender at the international and club level.
Other players are jockeying for moves to Europe, whether it be big-money moves or simple European opportunities.
But the biggest and best American agents have the most to prove. We're in the ultimate year of Project 2010, and while the United States probably will not win the World Cup this year, it can assert itself as a top-tier footballing nation.
The US advancement to quarterfinals in 2002 may have been an anomaly, but a similar run this go-around would make the world notice.
Bob Bradley has the greatest the prove, though. Fans and analysts understand the teams strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities, and have a general idea of what to expect from the team.
Player moves for the positive and the negative will happen as a result of the tournament. But Bradley has the opportunity of a lifetime to cement his name among the greatest of American coaches, and at the very least cement his job security.
Bradley's stoic nature makes him a bit of an unknown, unlike a counterpart such as Capello, and the World Cup provides the proper platform from Bradley to earn some respect he deserves.
10) Does this team have the mettle to finally meet expectations?
ESPN is watching. Therefore, the world is watching.
This World Cup provides the opportunity of a lifetime for US Soccer, led by mastermind Sunil Gulati, to finally thrust soccer permanently into the limelight and water cooler.
Soccer finally has the biggest platform and the national team the greatest spotlight and coverage, and the team needs to capitalize on the opportunity.
The Confederations Cup proved that this United States team has the courage and desire to win. The team may have fell short in the Confederations Cup, but at least we know that they can make some noise.
It's about time these players' spirit and desire translated into some physical magic, and this might be the year something can happen.
The American public has faith, and consequently expectation. This team has the mettle to meet these expectations, but we'll never know until they produce the results.