Today it begins. The moment all of you or none of you have been waiting for, the World Cup. To the Americans full of excitement, I salute you. But to the Americans who plan to pay little attention at all to the most watched sporting event on the planet, are you serious? The days of calling soccer a sport for the weak are over and if you watched just one match in any of the top leagues in Europe, surely you couldn’t be considered sane and get away with calling soccer players weak.
It’s time to face it America, soccer fever is here to stay. Behind the host country Brazil, the US will have the most fans at the World Cup, and it’s not even close. Almost 200,000 tickets were sold to Americans while 3rd place Argentina, Brazil’s geographical neighbor and biggest rival, bought just over 60,000 tickets. So if you don’t have the fever yet, then get over yourself because this isn’t the US Men’s National Team you think you know or have seen before.
We’re entering a major tournament with a foreign manager for the first time since the 1994 World Cup; and he’s no slouch.
Jürgen Klinsmann won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany as a player and played in the two following World Cups as well (‘94, ‘98).
The first team he managed was the German national team (most coaches try managing at a lower level first), taking them to the semis of the 2006 World Cup (which was in Germany, no pressure right?).He then went on to manage the German superclub Bayern Munich in 2009.
Point is, Jürgen Klinsmann has experience at the highest levels as a player and a manager and that is HUGE, something the USMNT has never had before.
From day one, Klinsmann established a new order within the USMNT. He upped the length and intensity of training sessions, encouraged his players to try themselves in the best leagues in the world, and even reshaped the team’s diet.
Since taking over in 2011, Klinsmann is a cool 17-2-3 (that’s 2 draws and 3 defeats) in games that count. Klinsmann came in and wanted to bridge that gap in team fitness to catch up with top international sides.
While the MLS has risen in quality in the past decade, it can’t possibly compare to the skill, pace and strength seen in the big European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy). It’s simple: The best players are the best because they play in the best leagues against the best competition.
As a result, the style of play of the USMNT has shifted drastically, a welcome change in my book. The team you’ll be watching in Brazil will actually be able to hold on to the ball and have some good possession against even the biggest of national sides (read: Portugal and Germany).
Without a decent percentage of possession, the US would be resigned to counter-attacking football, sitting deep in enemy territory and trying to force a mistake and break the other way.
The most important aspect of any team when they don’t have the ball is to remain compact and organized defensively, not always an easy task with 10 guys trying to stay on the same page.
The USMNT back-four (defenders) for the World Cup are essentially locked in at this point. Along side Fabian Johnson at right-back (RB), Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron look set to partner in the middle of defense as center-backs (CBs). Former attacker-turned-defender DeMarcus Beasley will likely slot in at left-back (LB). Klinsmann has made an effort in warm-up matches to give this back-four significant time to gel together.
Players that make the USMNT tick
The news of Landon Donovan (a.k.a America’s Soccer God) being left of the roster for the World Cup hit hard here at home. I won’t get into the specifics of it because it’s been big news for weeks, but the distraction of Donovan’s omission quite possibly has helped take the focus and pressure off the players who are actually in the 23-man squad. Let’s take a look who will play a big part in determining the USMNT’s fate in Brazil.
For American purposes, he is the point guard. His position is center midfield (CM) and he plays it tremendously well, just ask Fabian Johnson. His vision and ability to see the field is remarkable, but his ability to exploit the holes he sees is even greater. His versatility means he can play higher up the pitch behind the striker, or in a deeper but central position. Need more proof? His Dad was the USMNT manager from 2006 to 2011, but even after he left, Michael Bradley remained a staple of the squad. If the US is attacking any opponent, you can bet the attack will run through Bradley.
The target man. Used to being a lone-striker up top, Altidore showed some versatility playing with a second striker in the U.S. Send-Off Series. Despite coming off a poor club season (with a poor club), Jozy has every tool to be the player he was just two seasons ago when he scored 31 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. Jozy was on a 23-match scoring drought coming into the final World Cup warm-up match, but two goals against Nigeria ended that streak. I can’t overstate how important those goals were for his confidence going to Brazil.
The man between the posts will undoubtedly play a huge role in what could be his last World Cup (he’s 35 now). Howard’s impact in the team was highlighted in 2010 when he quickly dispatched the ball up-field that led to Landon Donovan’s match-winning goal against Algeria (gave me goosebumps just typing about it). In a team that has seen so many faces come and go, Howard has remained and the USMNT will rely on that experience in Brazil.
He can play up top if needed, but mainly in an attacking position centrally or on the left. Some fans love him, some loathe him, but Clint Dempsey is arguably the best all-around player in the squad. He spent six years playing in the best league in the world (English Premier League) and showed improvement in every season before moving back stateside. The US have played and won without him at various times in his career, but his experience is unrivaled by any outfield player in the 23-man World Cup squad.
USMNT Players To Lookout For
One of many USMNT players with dual-citizenship, the Norweigan-American has flown relatively under the radar since being called up first in 2010. He favors playing in central midfield, but has been effective also on the right or left, seen here setting up a Donovan goal against Mexico in September. His skill has developed quite nicely and he’s made a difference coming on a substitute, so watch for Mix to make it happen when needed.
Johnson is one of the most versatile players in the squad and also one of the newer members. Born in Germany to an American dad and a German mother, Johnson was first called up to the team in 2011 after Klinsmann took charge. He will be deployed at right back (RB) in Brazil, but his small stature, pace, and lack of a weak foot make him dangerous in attacking areas. He scored his first goal in an American jersey against Turkey on June 1st. Look for him to have a big influence against Ghana.
The youngest player in the squad, but also the player with the biggest upside, at just 19 Green has made the 23-man squad despite first playing for the USMNT in March. The US lucked out big time with Green, who made a one-time nationality switch from Germany to play for the USMNT. Green plays in any attacking position, including forward, and has the pace and flair to beat defenders 1-on-1. He might not even see a minute in the World Cup, but if he does you’d be foolish not to keep an eye on him.
Group G: The Group Of Death
Game 1 vs. Ghana, Mon. June 16th (6pm EST) I won’t beat around the bush, and yes I know it’s the first match, but it is a MUST WIN for the US. Ghana is undoubtedly the weakest team in the toughest group, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be a cakewalk. I expect to see an attacking lineup for this match (4-2-3-1) with the US having more of the ball throughout the match. The players won’t need any extra incentive to win either, Ghana has knocked the USMNT out of the last two World Cups.
PREDICTION: 3-1 USA
Game 2 vs. Portugal, Sun. June 22nd (6pm EST) After Ghana comes the big boys, first with Portugal. Currently the #4 team in the world, Portugal has one thing that everybody wants but nobody has: Cristiano Ronaldo. The Ballon D’Or winner is fresh off of a tendonitis issue in his right leg that has kept him out of training, but he will be fit to start in Brazil. Despite having the best player in the world, the rest of Portugal’s team is actually quite average for a national team with such prestige. This is a chance for the USMNT to prove they can beat the world’s top teams, and they’re very capable of doing it against Portugal
PREDICTION: 2-2 DRAW
Game 3 vs. Germany, Thurs. June 26th (Noon EST) The final match of the group for the USMNT brings Jürgen Klinsmann up against his home country, but that could work to the Americans’ advantage. Klinsmann established the core of the German team in 2006 and Germany’s current manager Joachim Löw is Klinsmann’s former assistant. The German’s are stacked with talent and the expectations back home in Deutschland are sky high; It’s title or bust for the Germans. Ultimately I think they’ll win the group, but look for the US to play a very calculated match against Germany. I can definitely seeing the US headed into their final group match looking for a draw to see us through. One thing I know is, you couldn’t ask for a better manager to go up against Germany than Jürgen.
PREDICTION: 1-1 DRAW
But Didn’t Our Manager Just Say We Can’t Win it All?
Thirsty media outlets salivated at Klinsmann’s suggestion that the US wasn’t capable of winning the World Cup, but looking beyond the big headlines at the context of his comments, Klinsmann’s pre-tournament feelings becomes clear:
For us now talking about winning a world cup, it’s just not realistic. If you do it like Greece you know in 2004, I think nobody from Greece would have said we’re going to win the European Championship, but they did. At the end of the day, soccer’s beautiful thing is it’s unpredictable. You don’t know what happens, every game is another step towards the next bigger goal and once you make it through that group we’re in, we’re not shying away from anybody. But first we have to make it through the group, so let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say ‘Let’s get that group first done, and then the sky’s the limit’”
It’s easy to see why headlines-makers latched onto the beginning of Klinsmann’s comments. Views and clicks are important and nothing screams read me like the manager of your national team saying we can’t win the World Cup days before it begins. Basically all Klinsmann is saying is it’s ridiculous to talk about us winning the World Cup when we have such a tough group to get out of first. He is fully focused on the task at hand of getting out of the group, and if the US moves on to the knockout stage, Klinsmann says anything can happen. That’s not a manager doubting his team’s ability, that’s a pragmatic approach to the situation the USMNT face, with an understanding that if we make it through, we have as much of a chance as anyone.
So can the US make it out of the Group of Death?
The short and long answer to this question is absolutely. At first glance, most observers outside the US would write off the Americans in favor of Portugal and Germany. This is a totally understandable opinion and it very well could end up this way, but I honestly think the USMNT will get out of the group at the expense of Portugal. Germany has been my pick to win the group since the draw in December, but with only three games to prove yourself, anything can happen.
The US improbably topped Group C over England in 2010, so why rule it out topping Group G this time around? Most Americans probably whined and complained about our terrible luck in the draw, but I was not one of them. The chance to go up against two of the best teams in the world (and watch the best player in the world) is a challenge the USMNT needed. We’ve proven ourselves time and time again on our own continent, but if the USMNT wants to show they’re a footballing country too, well they have the perfect chance and stage to do so.
In the words of Ian Darke, GO GO USA!