The team that America is sending to Germany for the World Cup is the most talented, the most experienced group ever to represent the United States. That said, it would be an upset if they made it out of the preliminary round thanks to our horrible luck in drawing 2 of the top 12 teams in the world as opponents in the first three games.
Ranked 5th in the tournament, Team USA boasts several players who have distinguished themselves on the international pitch as well as a couple of bona fide stars who have made a name for themselves in Europe. Coach Bruce Arena – the longest serving international coach in the competition – has also assembled a strong cast of supporting characters drawn largely from MLS (Major League Soccer) clubs here in the United States.
Gone are the days when the US team was composed mainly of naturalized citizens and college kids. America is now recognized as a legitimate soccer power in the world and the European club teams line up at the doors of our best players, hoping to sign them to contracts that rival those of any professional athlete in the United States.
And things are only going to get better. The jaw dropping skills of several of our younger players – some of whom didn’t make this year’s team – promises that the future of soccer in America is bright indeed and that the center of gravity of the sport may be shifting slowly from overseas toward the United States as far as the talent pool is concerned.
But for this team, the future is now. Featuring an offense with blazing speed and proven scorers, Team USA will be able to outrun almost any opponent they are likely to face. A solid, if unspectacular defense is anchored by one of the finest keepers in the world. And with a mixture of youth and experience, the chemistry of the team may help in overcoming a brutal draw that features games against the 2nd ranked Czechs and 11th ranked Italians as well as the relatively unknown team from Ghana.
In order to advance, America must be able to steal a win from either the Czechs or Italy and a tie with one of those two powerhouses. A win against 48th ranked Ghana should be a given but not much is known of them save their stellar midfielder Michael Essien who helped propel Chelsea to a Premiere League title.. A loss to any of these teams would more than likely finish the American’s chances.
The Americans will be sorely tried in their first match of the tournament against the Czechs who feature a punishing defense along with arguably one of the top 5 players in the world, midfielder Tomas Rosicky. It would have been worth the price of plane fare just to see Rosicky in action whose ball handling and passing skills are mind-boggling. But the Czechs are also limping a bit as they go into action with both their talented strikers nursing injuries and Rosicky himself recently suffering a slight thigh injury in the last 10 days. Even with some of their stars on the mend, the Czechs will give Team USA all they can handle and then some.
The Italians are a different kettle of fish altogether. Unpredictable, emotional, and prone to breakdowns on defense, the Italians nevertheless have to be taken seriously as a contender to take it all. Their high powered offense features a world class playmaker in Francesco Totti who plays for
AC Milan AS Roma, one of the great European club teams and a potent pair of strikers in Alessandro Del Piero and Luca Toni.
I actually think that Team USA has a great chance to score a huge upset against the Italians. Even though America is ranked higher, against the better European teams, the USA gets absolutely no respect. It’s been a long time since the USA has beaten a great European side and the Italians are ripe for a fall. Not only are their fans the most rabid in all of Europe with a sports press that makes New York media look like pussycats, but a scandal involving their best league almost cost coach Marcello Lippi his job. Couple that with the usual angst over some talented players that were left off the roster for one reason or another and you have a team that may be in some turmoil as well as having to endure the enormous pressure of sky-high expectations. If the Americans can get a lead and hold it for awhile, we may see the Italians disintegrate (they’ve done it before).
Still, despite some very talented players, the US may be on the outside looking in when the tournament moves to the round of 16. Only two teams will advance from each of the 8 groups and most observers fully expect Italy and the Czechs to move on from Group E. That said, here’s an overview of the US side and their various strengths and weaknesses.
The 1994 World Cup team where Tony Meola virtually carried the US squad against a powerhouse team from Columbia in the second round, giving the US it’s biggest World Cup victory in 50 years, proves how important a good keeper can be in advancing to the later rounds of the tournament. Fortunately for the US, Kasey Keller is every bit as good as Meola and at 36, has the experience so necessary when playing in such pressure packed games. Simply put, he is one of the finest goalkeepers on this or any other planet.
Team USA boasts a rock solid defense anchored by “Steady Eddie” Pope and newcomer Oguchi Onyewu, a huge, intimidating presence on the backline. Some observers believe Onyewu will emerge as an international star in the tournament and he has the physical gifts to do it. At 6’4”, 205 pounds, the 24 year old is lightening fast and very good in the air, able to head out the dangerous crosses on set piece plays where much of the scoring in the tournament will originate. Also watch for the youngster to overlap on offense, streaking down the wings to get in on the play.
At halfback, the US features two more solid and experienced players in Eddie Lewis and Steve Cherundolo. Both have plenty of international experience and Lewis especially is capable of jumping into the play if necessary.
If there is a weakness to the team’s defense, it isn’t on the back line. Coach Arena may surprise us and start an additional defenseman with Pope and Onyewu against either the Czechs or Italy, especially if team Captain Claudio Reyna is unable to go due to injury. But as it stands, the USA backline will be one of its strong points.
Arena has an embarrassment of riches at midfield with 4 world class speedsters possessing superior offensive skills and two reserves almost equally as gifted. The aforementioned Reyna has been a star in Europe for several years while playmaker John O’Brien has made a name for himself in the MLS. Both players are deadly accurate passers, vitally necessary in these matches as the marking gets incredibly tight against the top teams. On the wings, we’re likely to see two fellows with eye popping speed. DaMarcus Beasley has some serious skills and will pressure defenses the entire game with his exciting runs down the right wing. On the left, Bobby Convey proved in the recent World Cup warm up games that he can blow by any defender on the planet.
Waiting in the wings are two more talented players in Pablo Mastroeni and Clint Dempsey. In fact, Arena may start one or both of those men in place of Beasley and/or Convey. Much will depend on what formation the US team will go with. If Arena decides to go with the extra midfielder or a slightly more defensive minded side, Mastroneni may get the nod over Convey. Then if the US falls behind, he can bring Bobby’s fresh legs to bear in the second half.
This is the strength of the US team: Tremendous speed with the endurance of youth to have defender’s tongues hanging out by the end of the match. But along with that speed comes a downside. Both Beasley and Convey need to elevate their defense. They have been known to run themselves out the play to the point that a good counterattacking side like the Czechs could race down the field in odd-man breaks. And against an experienced, talented team like the Czechs, that is just asking for trouble.
Brian McBride and Landon Donovan will most likely see action up front, although Arena has been known to go with 5 midfielders in which case Landon will slip back to the midfield. The US has never had such talented strikers if you include the gifted but youthful Eddie Johnson in the mix as well as another speed demon, Brian Ching. That said, McBride, while spectacular in the air, is not known for being a good finisher. And Donovan usually does much better as a playmaker, roving the midfield looking for space and then driving on goal using his superior one-on-one skills to create chances.
This is a youthful, talented American side who will be tested as no other of our national teams been challenged in the opening round. And it doesn’t get any easier. If they win through to the round of 16, the all-world Brazilian team awaits them.
If it comes to that, a Brazil-USA match up would be the most important soccer game in the history of this country. And man, I just might fly to Germany to be able to tell my grandchildren that I saw it in person.
Paul Mirengoff has a decidedly more sober and realistic look at Team USA than my rather amatuerish and enthusiastic take. He’s making a good case for a more conservative lineup against the Czechs playing what sounds more like a 4-5-1; a formation that Arena used against Mexico in Mexico City and which generated virtually no offense whatsoever.
That said, the US side didn’t have Reyna or O’Brien for that match which led to enormous difficulties in our offense trying to get through midfield with any kind of momentum. Coach Arena walked into that venue – one of the toughest in the world – hoping for the result. What he got was Mexico swarming all over the US for 90 minutes and a 2-0 loss.
Paul also points out that the Czechs are getting a little long in the tooth (especially in the back) and that the Italians sometimes have trouble in the big tourneys due to enormously high expecations. He still doesn’t give the US much chance getting out of Group E and reluctantly, I am forced to agree with him.
NOTE: Actually, Paul appears to be advocating a more traditional 4-4-2 with Donovan paired up front with McBride and Mastroeni playing on the shoulder of the back line rather than a true winger position. That may help slow down Rosicky a bit and give some support to Eddie Lewis who has the speed and toughness but not much experience at left half.
And by the way, for all of you who think that soccer is a wussy Euro-weenie sport…The motto of Team USA is “DON”T TREAD ON ME.”