For fans and players alike, the final cut by coach Jurgen Klinsmann generated a mixture of expectance (midfielders/forwards that played prominent roles in qualification) and surprise (omitting Landon Donovan, and DeAndre Yedlin ousting Brad Evans and Michael Parkhurst for a defensive spot). Given a mere few weeks to adjust to the final 23-man selection, the Americans had to come together as a group in a dire situation–and knowing that they’ve somewhat failed to do so during preceding years in the back of their minds.
Yet following their three World Cup tune-up friendlies, the U.S. men’s national side began to develop a sense of unity, and nurturing the type of imposing style Klinsmann so frequently calls for on the pitch. Particularly noticeable in the June 7th game against Nigeria at home, the United States opened up play much more vibrantly than in previous games; always striving to avoid their customary lethargic starts, the USMNT displayed renewed aggression in the early-going by assertively taking shots on goal and initiating several opportunities. Quality early starts will prove critical in a ruthless group stage for the U.S., where there’s little room for error or even lapses in activity.
By now, one can easily acknowledge Michael Bradley, who has dramatically improved the technical aspect of his game, as the centerpiece of this squad–and a modest team-oriented one for that matter. The offense runs through the 26-year old before forwards receive their chances, with Bradley often assuming the role of creatively setting up his teammates: in 6 games in the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers, he connected on a stunningly efficient 89.3% of pass attempts. Thus, Bradley’s boxscore effect on the USMNT takes the form of team-high assist totals, but also interestingly ranking near the top of the squad for shots; while aware of the importance of setting up opportunities for others, the midfielder can take initiative himself as well, a balance that marks him as a great leader and on-field thinker.
Furthermore, Jozy Altidore at long last appears revitalized after his clinical two-goal work against a respectable and WC-bound Nigerian side. The transformation back to a formidable striker comes in the nick of time as well, the opening-cup clash with Ghana having loomed nine days away at that point. What once looked like a disastrous chain of events–Altidore played in top form between 2011-13 with the Dutch club AZ Alkamaar, as well as during WC qualification and exhibition matches near that period, but then lost confidence after a horrid season at Sunderland, and then continued to under-perform in international friendlies, a trend dangerously close to spilling into the World Cup itself–Altidore should now be primed to carry the goal-scoring load for his country in Brazil.
It might as well just vault the Americans into serious contention with Portugal (and Ghana, too) for a spot in the second round, and in an ironic way too: as Portugal’s essential goal-scorer in Cristiano Ronaldo suffers from a knee injury with his team’s World Cup start date rapidly approaching, the U.S.’s top forward presence, Altidore, is amid the process of replenishment.
Overall, it has unquestionably been a long-winding road for the Americans since getting ousted by Ghana four years ago in South Africa, but the display in these last few friendlies might just be the capstone of the team’s development since then. There’s always a next step to take, and as USMNT enters Group G with an underdog mentality (one relished by the team), the Yanks surely have their work cut out for them: bettering both a rising Portugal squad and nemesis Ghana in point total.
The adversaries to the dream
Fundamental to a successful tournament run, Team USA will have to face and overcome their demons straight out of the gate: a match against Ghana in Natal on June 16th will resurrect heartbreaking past WC memories–having been eliminated by this relatively minuscule nation on the western coast of Africa in each of the last two cups–in addition to forming a considerable obstacle to knockout-stage advancement. The Americans must play up to par with powerful Ghanaian midfielders, who like many of their teammates, have the benefit of abundant experience at the club level around the globe. The usual show of grit and effort, an unwavering focus, and a newfound sense of determination and boldness–strengthened by the idea of avenging for a historically one-sided series with their opponents–will all become necessary for a U.S. victory.
Six days later, and 1718 miles west into the Brazilian inland, the USMNT will take the pitch in sweltering and humid conditions against the fearsome Portuguese–what could possibly end up deciding the victor of second place in Group G. The effect of playing in the swamp-like city of Manaus will hinder both the USA and Portugal, a circumstantial factor assisting the former most of all, as the Americans will be desperate for any aid in a battle from which they’d be content leaving with even a draw; although the Portuguese clearly boast the superior skill and offensive firepower, the game conditions should help level the playing field a good amount. Team USA’s objective throughout the contest will pertain to inhibiting the effect reigning Ballon d’Or recipient Cristiano Ronaldo has on the game, with particular attention to his regular attacking runs down the wings–thereby making the quality of the jobs done by American fullbacks crucial. Other than its one superstar, Portugal presents some other playmaking options in the midfield, as well as contains a few tenacious and sturdy defensive players, but nothing too daunting if the U.S. is clicking on all cylinders.
And finally, to conclude group stage competition on June 26th, but hopefully not entire World Cup action, the United States will face the machine-like execution and talent-stacked roster that comprise perennial powerhouse Germany, a nation seeking its first major tournament title since Euro ’96. Best-case scenario for the Yanks involves the Germans somehow locking up first place in the group after the first two sets of matches, and therefore not playing as strongly in a meaningless game. Regardless, it will almost assuredly be the toughest encounter in the tourney for The Stars and Stripes. Tempered and reasonable hopes center around preserving the goal differential result (that could eventually figure prominently) from this match to -2, or even -1. Other than the instance of Jurgen Klinsmann pleading fellow countryman and German coach Joachim Low to settle for a draw, the U.S. will tacitly acknowledge an inevitable defeat, and instead rest their second-round aspirations on the outcome of the Portugal/Ghana matchup–that begins at the exact same time as their own game–in country capital Brasilia.
Can they do it?
In Team USA’s two most pivotal matches, Ghana and then Portugal will relentlessly challenge an unproven and suspect American back line. As a result, the decisive factor for the U.S. will very possibly become the play of Tim Howard; the Everton goalie often rises on the big stage, and could consequently push the United States over the hump, also adding leadership and moxie to his reliably exceptional performance in the net. Thus, with a world-class and internationally-respected goalkeeper anchoring the back, and potent midfield and forward pieces falling into place, under the valuable direction of Jurgen Klinsmann, and with an ever-increasing American soccer fanbase on their backs, the United States Men’s National Team will complete the unthinkable: escape the group of death, and into USA sports lore.
Key matches: Ghana vs. USA, June 16th & Portugal vs. United States, June 22nd
1) Germany (9 points): W vs. Portugal, W vs. Ghana, W vs. USA
2) USA (4 points): W vs. Ghana, T vs. Portugal, L vs. Germany
3) Portugal (2 points): L vs. Germany, T vs. USA, T vs. Ghana
4) Ghana (1 point): L vs. USA, L vs. Germany, T vs. Portugal