Is Team USA a World Cup Contender?
by Trevor Whenham - 5/20/2010
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The U.S. soccer team really needs to have a good World Cup. They looked like they were taking a step forward into the world elite at the 2002 World Cup, but they haven't been able to keep up that momentum since. A good performance in South Africa would build support for the program and give it more to build on going forward - perhaps towards another home World Cup in 2018 or 2022.
So, what's a definition of a good World Cup? Well, in 2002 they were second in their group, and advanced to the quarterfinals by beating Mexico in their first elimination round. Ideally, at least another trip to the quarterfinals or further would be great for Team USA. Getting out of the first round is a minimum. So, do the Americans have that in them? Are they a contender that can make some waves? I'm personally skeptical that they can win a game in the elimination round, but I'll present the arguments and you can decide for yourself:
Group C - Many have argued that this is the easiest group that the team has drawn into in recent World Cups. In 2006 they were in a World Cup Group of Death along with eventual champs Italy, the Czech Republic, and Ghana. The team didn't win a game during the tournament, but it's hard to argue that there was a game that they absolutely should have won. In 2002 Portugal was a tricky team, and South Korea was playing at home. This year their challenge is arguably less. England is the clear class of the group, but both Algeria and Slovenia are teams that the Americans should be able to beat if both teams are playing at their best.
Jozy Altidore - Altidore isn't the best player on the team - that honor probably belongs to Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan. Altidore may be the key, though. He's a young, explosive striker with endless creativity - exactly the type of guy who can break out at the World Cup. He's been learning and improving while playing in Europe, and he has the most potential of any player on the team. The team won't necessarily fail if Altidore struggles, but they could do some damage if he plays very well.
Tournament performance - The 2006 World Cup was a disaster, but since then the team has posted some solid results. They won the 2007 Gold Cup, and were the runner-up in 2009 (albeit after a terrible 5-0 loss to Mexico in the final). Most significantly, they were second in the Confederations Cup, and to earn that they had to pull off a stunning upset of Spain. They also led the CONCACAF region through the qualification process for this tournament. The team lacks some consistency, and has struggled against two high-level teams - Brazil and Mexico - but the overall results give us more reasons to be positive than negative.
Physicality - It's almost as if the Americans try to emulate the far more popular football players they see at home. They play a style of play that is more physical than much of what we see from many teams, and that can put teams off their games - like it did for Spain in the Confederations Cup. That physical play is an edge they will have to exert in this tournament to make an impact. This is one case where being a bully is a good thing.
Group C - The group may be easier than what they have seen, but it still isn't easy. If both teams play both to capabilities then they are going to lose to England. That means that they can't afford a second loss if they want to make qualification easy. Both the teams they have to beat have the ability to rise up to a challenge. Slovenia knocked favored Russia out of the World Cup qualification process, and Algeria upset African power Egypt in a huge performance. A loss is more than just possible if the Americans aren't completely focused.
Defense - The biggest liability this team faces is their defensive plays. Injuries have been a real issue. Oguchi Onyewu, who was a huge factor in the win over Spain, has been dealing with a knee injury, and is rushing his return to be ready for the World Cup. Jonathan Spector, who would need to pick up some of the slack if Onyewu isn't at his best, has also had injury issues and hasn't been playing particularly well recently. Beyond them the defense isn't as young or as fast as it should be, and that makes them vulnerable to fast teams.
Expectations - I am concerned about the ability of this team to handle pressure. In 2006 they went into the World Cup facing massive expectations, and they completely failed to handle them. The pressure here is going to be even more intense in a lot of ways - they beat Spain, they have an easier group, and they have to make up for the bad performance last time.
Second-round matchup - If everything goes according to the odds then the Americans will finish second in Group C. That would lead to an elimination round matchup with Germany. That's a terrible matchup against a very talented team that raises their game in major tournaments. If they can somehow avoid Germany then they still likely have to face Serbia or Ghana - two very tough teams. The Americans may have enjoyed the luck of the draw in the first round, but it didn't help them beyond that.
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