Point/counterpoint: Can the U.S. go far?
WHY THE U.S. WILL GO FAR
The United States doesn't stand a chance at the World Cup.
That is a common belief outside the United States, and even for some American soccer fans. The reality, however, is that Bob Bradley's team has a good chance of going well beyond the group stages. It will take a run of great form, and some breaks have to bounce the Americans' way, but writing off the United States from being a factor at this summer's tournament would be a mistake that has been made before.
Consider 2002, when the United States was in a difficult group including heavily-favored Portugal, the host South Koreans and a Poland team that had been unbeaten in qualifying. The Americans shocked the Portuguese and tied South Korea to earn enough points to reach the Round of 16, where a date with arch-rival Mexico loomed. The United States put together another strong showing to beat the Mexicans and reach the quarterfinals, where they outplayed Germany in a 1-0 loss.
Think about that run, and about the fact that the United States pushed Germany to the brink, with only a Torsten Frings handball keeping the Americans from knocking off the Germans and playing a World Cup semifinal against the same South Korean team it tied in the group stage.
To be fair, that was eight years ago. If you want more recent evidence, consider the 2009 Confederations Cup. The Americans were placed in a group with Italy and Brazil and given little chance of advancing. They were thoroughly outplayed by Brazil, but outplayed Italy for a half before wearing down after a first-half red card. The United States regrouped, thrashed Egypt, and qualified for the semifinals with some help from Brazil.
You know what happened next. The Americans put on a defensive performance for the ages in a stunning upset of Spain, followed by a perfect half of soccer in the Confederations Cup final against Brazil, which was followed up by a second-half collapse that cost them the most improbable of titles.
These two tournaments, some seven years apart, show us that the United States can put together a strong tournament run no matter the opponents or circumstances, so long as disciplined defending, stellar goalkeeping and effective counterattacks are at the forefront.
The Americans can enjoy a strong World Cup this summer if the same defenders who played so well last summer in the Confederations Cup can once again find that rhythm. The key to that will be Oguchi Onyewu's full recovery from the knee injury he suffered in October. He is the team's most imposing defender and, when he is at his best, makes the defenders around him better. He can also take away set piece threats like no other American can.
As important as defending will be, the United States must convert its chances, and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are enjoying a strong run of form that should carry over into the World Cup. Donovan's ability to set up teammates and Dempsey's ability to find and finish chances should give the Americans a puncher's chance in every match in the group stage.
Then you have Tim Howard, who has been waiting eight years for the chance to play in a World Cup. He didn't make the 2002 team when he probably should have, and he was the back-up in 2006 when he could have easily started. In 2010, Howard is the unquestioned No. 1 and this World Cup will give him a stage to show the world why he should be considered one of the top ten goalkeepers in the world.
Just like in 2002 and 2009, the United States also need some youth to emerge and provide a spark. Twenty-year-old Jozy Altidore and 22-year old Jose Torres could provide just that, while 22-year-old Michael Bradley can secure himself a major transfer move with a breakout tournament performance.
Just how far can the Americans go? The World Cup bracket could provide the United States with a reasonable path to the quarterfinals, and perhaps even a dream run to the semis.
Sound impossible? Consider this scenario:
The United States qualifies for the Round of 16 as the second-place team in Group C. The Americans face surprising Serbia in the Round of 16. Tim Howard delivers a stunning performance in a 1-0 victory, setting up a quarterfinal match-up against none other than Mexico (which will have upset Argentina in a rematch of its 2006 Round of 16 loss).
The Americans, who haven't lost to Mexico outside of Mexico with their first team in more than a decade, will dispose of 'El Tri' yet again as head coach Javier Aguirre has flashbacks of 2002, when he coached Mexico's last World Cup loss to 'Los Gringos.'
Where would that put the United States in the semifinals? Pitted against none other than Spain, the same team the United States upset a year earlier in the Confederations Cup semis. Asking the Americans to upset Spain twice in a year is a bit too much to ask, though, so look for the Spaniards to exact revenge, leaving the United States to play in the third-place match against -- who else? -- England.
Beating England in a third-place match wouldn't matter, but it would be a sweet cap to a dream tournament run, the type of run that could really give soccer in America the boost it needs to climb into the national conversation.
This might all sound implausible, but so did a World Cup quarterfinal run in 2002, and so did a Confederations Cup final run last summer. The U.S. men's national team proved plenty of people wrong then, and stand poised to prove even more people wrong this summer.
WHY THE U.S WON'T GO FAR
When my editors asked me to write about the Americans' chances of winning the World Cup, I felt I should check in. I thought I'd read it wrong. See, the question this time around isn't whether the Yanks can win the Cup -- the question is if this bunch can get out of their group.
That's not going to sit well with the diehards and dreamers who correctly surmise that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the Americans. They have been gifted their easiest group draw ever and are playing on neutral ground (since they cannot win in Europe, that's a must). The last time they had a combo like this -- in 2002 -- the Americans went all the way to the quarterfinals. Why can't the same be true this time?
Because the Americans are an average side. Not good, not bad -- average. There's no shame in this -- the fact that the U.S. has come far enough to experience what every other team in the world goes through is a triumph in and of itself. But that's not going to help come June.
The truth is that the Americans aren't good enough to win the Cup. Among the other truths is that England is among the favorites, Slovenia is exactly the type of Eastern European team the USA historically struggles against, and Algeria can't be dismissed. In a group where you need at minimum four points, this looks like a tall order for the Yanks.
Why aren't they good enough? The U.S. has problems with tactics, talent and depth. Also, through no fault of their own, the Americans have conceded the biggest advantage they once had.
That advantage was stealth. The Americans are no longer flying under the radar. People know them, and pay attention to them. Their best players take the field -- or, too often, the bench -- each week in Europe, so other countries have lots and lots of tape to scout (and despite what the English media tell you each week, people started taking the Americans as a serious threat right after they KO'd Portugal in 2002). Again, this is a sign of growth. It's a good thing. It's just not a good thing right now.
Every once in a while, of course, foreign complacency sets in. You saw that last summer against Spain (don't think Fabio Capello is going to show his guys that one? Think again). But American fans have a selective memory as well. Yeah, the USA got to the finals last summer, albeit in a friendly tournament. That's great. But they also got a lot of help after playing two dreadful games when Italy gave up three goals to punt them into the semis. If this seems like a pattern to you, you're not mistaken. In 2002, the U.S. got a lot of help to get into the knockout round from South Korea; people always forget about that American howler against Poland.
In truth, the real meaningful result at the Confederations Cup, and the one more fans should be paying attention to, was that 3-2 loss to Brazil. That was a game that showed the USA works hard, and can take advantage of you -- but lacks the skills and international experience needed to close out big games.
That lack of that knowledge is a killer, and the finger has to be pointed at the coaching staff. Manager Bob Bradley has not demonstrated he's capable of doing anything more than pointing the guys in the direction of the field and wishing them the best. The team has proven incapable of adjusting under pressure, and seems to only employ one set of tactics -- work hard, and play the full 90 minutes. That's more of an ethos than a game plan, however, and it can be exposed pretty quickly.
Let's talk talent. The U.S. does have three field players who could start regularly on top-level teams. Those men are Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. The U.S. also has three very good goalkeepers to choose from, and even though the best one's at home in Birmingham, both Marcus Hahnemann and Tim Howard enjoyed good seasons. That's four positions capably filled.
What about the other seven? That's the rub. Most of the guys who would slot in either had miserable years, are untested, or are coming off injuries. We believe a couple of them could be pretty good -- Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu -- but given a lack of full-fitness and playing time, it's hard to be certain how either of them will fare.
A number of men that the Americans will have to rely on had miserable years. Of course, Onyewu and DeMerit are in that group, alongside DaMarcus Beasley (dropped by Rangers), Jozy Altidore (sent packing by Hull), Jonathan Spector (miserable season, miserable team), Stuart Holden (injury) and Maurice Edu (injury). Charlie Davies, so inspirational in qualifying, didn't make it after failing to fully heal from a car crash.
That's a good number of key players we just talked about, and the U.S. doesn't have the depth to cover them. The choices -- Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, Robbie Findley -- are unappealing. But that's what the Americans and the coaching staff have to work with.
Finally, history is against the Americans. They do play better on neutral ground, but they also play in a frustrating pattern at Cups: one good game, one bad game, one mediocre game. Sometimes (1994, 2002) that's enough to go through. Other times (1998, 2006) it's not.
Bottom line is that all the signs point to the Yanks struggling to get to the knockout stage. They can make the round of 16. But for now, dreams of hoisting the Cup seem set to remain just that.