2010 FIFA World Cup: Final Four Give U.S. Recipe for Success

Ben TrianaFeatured ColumnistJuly 14, 2010

PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 10:  Joachim Loew head coach of Germany celebrates victory and third place following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Third Place Play-off match between Uruguay and Germany at The Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium on July 10, 2010 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
Lars Baron/Getty Images

At first glance, it might seem like a U.S. that didn't get out of the second round has little in common with South Africa's finalists.

As far as direct parallels are concerned, there aren't, but like a novice writer stealing from an award-winning novelist, the American National team can learn much if not overtly steal from 2010's final four.

Considering this tournament's winner is a Spanish side with not only a starting eleven that could play for any team in the world, but a bench that could as well , what follows is not the formula to become the new Spain, but to get to the semifinals--a hard enough task in itself. 

Once a team gets to the semifinals, then anything can happen. Thankfully, these teams have laid out a blueprint for other to follow. What follows is a list of traits the U.S. can take from the teams that made it to the final weekend of the 2010 World Cup.


Of the four teams, playing like this nation of 3.2 million people is the easiest to incorporate into any team's style of play.

This often over-matched team (on paper at least), challenged the best in the world through its tenacious defense. In fact, the teams most likely to have success played with a similar intensity.

The U.S. played a defensive style rife with intensity and perseverance, but there's a slight distinction in the defensive schemes.

North Korea, Switzerland, even Brazil, played defensively. They sat back, put players in front of the goal and played the odds that a team couldn't score before they did. Only Brazil made it past the group-stage, and keep in mind, their coach was fired for his style of play and the team's inability to reach expectations.

Uruguay, Spain, and to a lesser extent, Japan, succeeded through the opposite approach: pressure .

Organized, relentless hounding of the ball handlers bred more turnovers and more success than sitting back and baiting the best players in the world to control possession, attack, and shoot.

For Uruguay, the defensive philosophy was clear; whenever an opposing player gained possession, someone was expected to confront him, close the space, don't allow the player time to think. The best time to do so was when the ball was coming to the player. Always make sure the player knows someone was on his back.

It takes a bit of sophistication to run this type of defense and that may be why the U.S. hasn't employed it so far.

First, a team needs to be smart. Players can't run blindly at the opposition. The right player at the right time needs to apply pressure, otherwise, you'll be caught out of position.

Secondly, it's utterly exhausting to press for ninety minutes.

Finally, it takes technique and talent to play an aggressive defensive style and not accumulate cards. The Netherlands are a good example of a tough defense gone horribly wrong. Likewise, a couple of Uruguay's defenders did accumulate yellows and have to sit a game.

Still, the U.S. has the ability to play this style. They have a midfield capable of applying high pressure. Donovan, Feilhaber, Torres and Dempsey can all pester players with their speed and presence. Edu and Bradley have the work rate and defensive capabilities to make tackles and disrupt an offenses rhythm.

And, if there's at least one thing that Bob Bradley did for this team, he forced them to become organized defensively; they were required to keep their shape. Maybe it was a different system, but there's a foundation.

There are issues though. Few U.S. players have the technique and savvy to avoid yellow and red cards. The MLS--where many of the younger players develop--isn't encouraging better defense either. A third of the "clean" tackles in a domestic game would be carded at the World Cup.

Even though the team is organized, it's much more difficult to stay organized when everyone is moving and pressing. Mentally, the team, and in particular the defense, will need to adapt to the game much faster.

But in the end, one of the indelible rules of soccer is that pressing teams win while the ones that don't lose. There's little hope for the U.S. if they don't adopt this philosophy.

Offensively, there's little the U.S. can do to mimic Uruguay. Diego Forlan is a once in a generation player, and Luis Suarez is clearly an elite striker. The U.S. has never had forwards of their stature.

Nevertheless, the U.S. should have the right plan in place in case these players do appear. The country cannot afford to waste such an opportunity.


There's nothing in the way Germany plays that the U.S. can't one day imitate.

Efficient, methodical, athletic and skilled, the American team has more in common with the German side than any of the final four. It's a shame the United States hasn't been studying the German system before now.

Was this German side full of players that performed tricks on the ball only a handful of the world's best could copy? Were the majority of their goals scored on once-in-a-lifetime strikes? Will this team go down as one of Germany's best (2014' edition might, but this one won't).

That's the lesson to be taken from this Deutschland side. Their success was based on superb passing, intelligent attacking movement, and precise finishing .

Germany didn't try to create the next Messi or Rooney. Instead, they focused on traits every professional player can master. Passes go where they are intended. Players move to areas that unravel defenses, and when given a chance, a player has the requisite skill to score.

Like most things in life, what is easiest to learn is the most difficult to master.

Few teams in this World Cup displayed any sort of dynamism in their attack. Players moved either vertically, horizontally, and often without any width. Why? These are professional players, shouldn't they know that a diagonal run between defenders is often the most devastating?

A lot of it probably has to do with the speed of the game. It's hard to think, move and react as fast as these players play. It has to be second nature, and it takes a lifetime to make it second nature. Now imagine that the "mental" aspects of the game don't come naturally. It may never come.

When one looks back at the second half of the formula, it's also daunting. The Spain/Germany semi-final was a demonstration on the skill needed to play the best.

Balls stop on a dime. Passes are perfect. A player's touch puts the ball right where it needs to be and not a millimeter too far...and it's all done at top speed.

There's nothing more difficult to cultivate in a player than elite technique.

How many opportunities were squandered by American players because of an errant pass? Not to single out Jozy Altidore, but how many traps bounced two feet away from his frame? He may only be twenty, but Germany's Mesut Ozil is twenty-one, and Altidore may never develop the attacker's level of control.

This is why Jurgen Klinsman demanded full control of the U.S. program, going so far as to request their free time to work on team play if he was going to coach the U.S. Players don't develop the chemistry, understanding, and ability otherwise.

It may be a difficult task, but Germany proved that simple, intelligent and skilled play can compete against the best in the world.

In all other aspects of American society, the culture understands this. Genius and talent may be born, but skill, knowledge, and technique can be developed through hard work. It's one of the most American of beliefs. Why isn't the U.S. playing this way?

How many passes has Landon Donovan played across a goal for another player to tap into the net?

Don't such plays resemble half of Klose's tap-ins for his national team?

The traits are there. All Germany did was take the core of soccer and execute it at the highest level. Given enough time, the best in the United States can do the same.


After their brutal display in the final, there may not be much U.S. fans would like the team to take from the Dutch. However, the team made it to the final for a reason, and there's something to be learned from them.

There may not have been another team that utilized such clearly defined roles as Holland. It affected all aspects of their game.

Wesley Sneijder was the play maker, Van Bommel and De Jong the holding midfielders, Van Persie the finisher, and Arjen Robben was to get the ball as much as possible. More than once, the Dutch keeper tried to punt the ball directly to Robben.

Few teams can succeed in the modern game without the Dutch's level of specialization . Players need to understand their team's philosophy, how they're going to achieve it, and each individual's role in the process.

The U.S. struggled with this idea.

Who was the holding midfielder? Who should handle distribution? When should Clint Dempsey get the ball? Is it better to have Altidore hold the ball and lay it off to other players, or should he take on defenders? Why isn't there a concerted effort to make sure Landon Donovan gets more touches on the ball?

The team never really settled on an approach. The Ghana loss revealed how little substance was etched in stone. The personnel, style and approach was always in flux. A team can't win if it doesn't have a philosophy, and it can't change it's approach if it doesn't have one to begin with.

When watching the U.S., it shouldn't take much to figure out which players will push forward, who is targeted once possession is gained, and who has what responsibility.

The Dutch gave us total football. It may be gone now, usurped by the importance of specialization. It's ironic that the country most noted for players that should be able to play anywhere would be the one to have the most specialized squad, but it only reinforces how important clearly defined roles are in the modern game.


Having the best team in the world raises your chances of winning the tournament.

An obvious statement. Not much to be learned there, but Spain revealed another important lesson: Have a plan B, Maybe even a C .

England, Argentina, and Germany all lost because their first-choice approach faltered. Gerard and Lampard in a conventional formation (4-4-2) didn't work. Once Lionel Messi and Tevez were hampered, Maradona couldn't find another way to break down the Germans, and Germany, once Spain clogged the midfield, couldn't find any other way to create offense.

On the other hand, Spain's manager, Vincente Del Bosque, benched Fernando Torres because his two forward approach wasn't working. In the end, his loaded midfield won him the trophy.

During the final, the choice to bring on Jesus Navas for creativity and width along with the attack-minded Cesc Fabregas put pressure on Netherland's defense, resulting in the eventual red card and subsequent goal that won the tournament.

It would be hard to fault Del Bosque if he would have benched Torres and placed another striker or one of his midfield attackers in his 4-4-2. He had the talent. The same could be said if he would have left his starting eleven on the field since they had the control of the possession against Holland. Instead, he made changes that overhauled his team's approach.

Nothing changes a game like a change in plans.

In-game, opposing teams struggle to adjust on the fly. Between games, the right changes are essential.

What would have come of England if Cappello would have benched either Gerard or Lampard, or opted for another midfielder and played Rooney by himself?

What would have become of France if Domenech would have balanced his squad rather than playing three individuals that all wanted to sit on the left side of the pitch?

For the U.S., the plan was always defense, defense, defense, and the players most able to execute Bradley's brand of defense were most likely to play. He would then rely on Dempsey, Donovan, a speedy forward, Altidore's potential, timely second efforts by his son and set plays for offense (a lot of "if's" in that equation).

When it didn't work, he threw the kitchen sink at teams. The team squeaked through.

Against Ghana, Bradley reverted to failed Plan A, because really, throwing a kitchen sink isn't an actual philosophy. The U.S. lost.

Moral of the story: Have a plan A and a plan B, and when one plan doesn't work, don't go back to it later.

A Final Word on Tactics (Since Everyone Loves to Talk about Them)

None of these teams flourished in a 4-4-2.

Spain attempted the formation but that was because they had two of the best strikers in the world. Still, they changed.

As defenses have evolved, in particular holding midfield-roles, players need more space and more freedom in the attack. It comes from a loaded midfield that can attack in multiple ways.

For Uruguay it was pushing its forwards out wide. Germany, playing two with three attacking midfielders that had the skill (and might actually be) forwards. The Netherlands, having the majority of skill in the midfield and playing to its strength (Sneijder and Robben). Spain did it by optimizing possession for extended periods of time.

Even Bob Bradley gave up on the 4-4-2 at the last minute. A stalwart that continually pushed square pegs in round holes, he finally recognized that the bulk of his team's skill was in the midfield.

The bulk of the team's skill should still be in the midfield by the next World Cup.


What may have been most frustrating for American fans was the feeling that the team never really played up to its potential. The World Cup semi-finalists gave the U.S. ways to reach its potential: play defense with pressure and organization, move and execute on offense, give each player a specific role, and have an alternate plan in case the original one isn't working.

As long as the U.S. plays in a formation that addresses the advancements in the modern game, the team should be able to continue its upward climb.


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