Friday, June 4, 2010

One Nation: My USA World Cup Preview

No sporting event means more to the American sports landscape than the World Cup. That is not an exaggeration: for better or worse it's the truth. True, more Americans will talk about the Super Bowl or will fill out NCAA brackets or stop what they're doing to watch Albert Pujols than talk about soccer. But when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the effect the US Men's result in the World Cup has on the state of soccer in our nation. Lose and people think "wasn't that cute....Americans trying to play with the big boys." But defeat some of the big boys....and US Soccer gets some serious credibility in the eyes of a skeptic nation.

No pressure.

Actually that's more true than you would imagine. The expectations of the US team rides on the coat tails of their performance in the last World Cup. In 2002 the national team shocked the nation by making the quarterfinals. Expectations were high for 2006, some were predicting the semifinals. Well, we scored 2 goals and got knocked out early. This gives our team a "nothing left to lose" attitude. An attitude that fits Americans well. Here is a look at some key players you should know.

Consistent Stars: Great players who just seem to have the knack to rise to the occasion.
Tim Howard: He is an elite keeper, one of the top 5. He played over 40 games in England last year and he is sharp both in form and in decisions. He can clear out corners, get down for low shots and keep our back line organized. You don't have to worry about the keeper making a dumb decision with Howard in the goal. And that's saying a lot.

Landon Donovan: The all-time leading scorer for the US has moved from being a forward or attacking mid to play right wing. At first I was concerned about moving a playmaker to the wing, but Landon has proved my worries unnecessary. He is explosive in space, he makes great runs off the ball and has great touch. He knows how to weave in and out of the defense and that allows him to find his way into the action, often to create a chance on goal. Once a liability, he is clearly a strength now.

Clint Dempsey: His story is similar to Donovan's. A great striker and goal scorer, he now plays wing for the US. And like Donovan, that position suites him well. What he lacks in pace he makes up for in determination. He is always in the right place, always fighting for the ball. He knows when to use a flashy move and when to just muscle it through. And he always ends up in the action. The difference is Dempsey is more likely to get in a fight than Donovan. Not a bad thing mind you.

Need to perform to their abilities: Good players who have something to prove.

Jozy Altidore: He's been great for the national team over the last couple years, but he only played in about half his games this past season, and he didn't exactly perform well. Will we see the Jozy of last summer or last winter? As our most seasoned forward that is an important question for the team.

Michael Bradley: Honestly Bradley has played really consistently for the US. But even the slightest gaff and he could cost the US a game. He is our strongest defender in the midfield and often kick starts the offense. He connects the back to the front, we need him to be on his game.

Oguchu Onyewu: Gooch busted his knee last October and has shown a lot of heart getting to the World Cup at all. But he is still needed in the back. No offense to Clarence Goodson, but Onyewu (when healthy) is a rock on the back line. Can his knee hold up? Will there be rust? The answers will determine if Tim Howard makes comfortable saves or "hold your breath" saves.

Rise above it: Can these players make a difference?

Jose Torres: To be honest, I didn't know who this guy was before World Cup qualifying. I was surprised he made the team. But after the Turkey game I have really high hopes for him. He doesn't mind doing the dirty work in the midfield: Defending deep, bailing out the defense. This allows the rest of the midfield to focus on their offense a little more which greatly enhances our ball movement. I don't know how much he will play, but a good tournament from Torres could do wonders for the US.

Findley/Gomez/Buddle: Three forwards with little National team experience. Crazy? Crazy like a fox. These three are all playing great right now. They are literally too inexperienced to feel the pressure. All they know is the ball goes in the net. If any combination of these three can score 2 - 4 goals, the US is in great shape.

Success? After the poor performance in '06, the measure of success is hard to gauge. Think of the World Cup as the NCAA tournament, good teams lose and lesser teams make a run. Picking the World Cup is the same. For me, my expectation is for the US to get out of Group C and make the knock out round. I would call the tournament a definitive success. Make the Semifinals and the world will notice.

Win it all? Running around naked would be acceptable. I don't think it will happen, but that's why you play the games.

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