It seems like a long time ago that the United States men’s national team was riding high, celebrating the culmination of one of the greatest years in American soccer history after another familiarly-scored drubbing of Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. clinched its seventh consecutive World Cup bid that night in September, and it had spent the last calendar year racking up a series of iconic wins: the Yanks beat Mexico in Mexico, Italy in Italy, and Germany on home turf. It assembled a thrilling comeback against Bosnia-Herzegovina, and it qualified with more points than it had ever won before.
Then everything changed. The U.S. landed an absolutely awful draw at the World Cup, a road that will take them through Ghana, an old foe who has knocked the USMNT out of the two previous World Cups, tonight before they face Portugal and Germany later in the tournament. Striker Jozy Altidore, coming off a stunning 2013 club season and an incredible summer for his country, scored only a single goal in a full season at Sunderland. The U.S. looked ugly at times in friendlies and then, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to leave the most recognizable star in American soccer history — Landon Donovan — off his Brazil roster entirely.
As if the drawn out debate over Donovan wasn’t enough, we had a collective national freakout when Klinsmann violated all codes of America’s sporting ethos by telling the New York Times that his team probably couldn’t win the World Cup. Small segments of the national soccer-watching public seemed to have a problem with the fact that he chose five German-Americans and a few other not-quite-red-blooded-enough Americans to stock the roster (forgetting, of course, that this is a common practice in international soccer). The World Cup became a discussion about whether our style is American enough, too American, or whether the German head coach was trying to make U.S. soccer “less American” or “more American.” Add the worries about the Group of Death to it all, and we’ve gone from one of the best years in U.S. soccer history to one full of nothing but fretting pretty quickly.
Which means that going into Brazil, the United States has a chance to change the tune of that conversation back to a happy one, much as it did in 2013 after rumors of discontent with Klinsmann within the team. That starts with tonight’s opening match against Ghana. The problem, of course, is that it won’t be easy. Group G is one of the toughest in the entire tournament, and the U.S. slots in somewhere behind Germany and Portugal in its chances to advance. Ghana isn’t as good as the team that knocked the U.S. out in 2010, but it’s still probably the toughest fourth-best team in any group. Portugal boasts the best player in the world. And Germany is one of the world’s best teams, one of the favorites to win the entire tournament.
If the U.S. is going to advance, it likely needs to beat Ghana tonight and at least tie with Portugal in the second match. By the third game, the hope is that Germany will be comfortably through, giving the U.S. a chance to challenge in that match too. It won’t be easy for the Americans to make it through, but it’s also is far from impossible, and at some point they’re going to have to quit relying on easy groups like the one they drew in 2010 and get out of one of these anyway. Might as well make this the year, and if that’s going to happen, here are a few players to watch:
Jozy Altidore: Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland were a source of worry for every American soccer fan all fall, winter, and spring, though Klinsmann didn’t seem particularly concerned. Jozy broke out of his funk in a big way before Brazil, scoring twice against Nigeria, including a rocket that was as pure of a Jozy Altidore goal as he’s ever scored. That should give USMNT fans hope: the last time Altidore broke out of a slump for his country, he went on to score in the next five matches. Altidore, though, can find ways to affect matches even when he doesn’t score. He’s big and physical and takes up space that leaves room for Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and other scorers to operate. Still, when Altidore’s on and scoring goals, as he was throughout last summer, the USMNT is a totally different team. If they’re going to get out of this group, Altidore has to play well.
Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler: Cameron and Besler are the most likely options in the middle of an American defense that will have to be on point to get out of this group, or at least better than it has been for the past year. Besler seemed to develop a working partnership with Omar Gonzalez throughout the qualifying cycle, but Klinsmann now seems to favor Cameron in that center back role, a switch from the right back position he’s played at Stoke City in the English Premier League all year. The U.S. has questions in the fullback position too, roles Fabian Johnson and Damarcus Beasley will likely occupy, but the biggest questions are reserved for Cameron and Besler, who at times looked disjointed in the three tune-up matches. Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and Germany’s brilliant midfield could tear this team to shreds if the defense, anchored by these two, isn’t better than it was in those tune-ups, when Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Nigeria failed to convert opportunities these teams won’t miss.
Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley: Both Dempsey and Bradley returned from Europe to Major League Soccer this season in decisions that were heavily scrutinized by everyone from fans to Klinsmann himself, but they remain the heart and soul of this team. Klinsmann has freed up Bradley, who can work all over the midfield and come up in scoring opportunities, with tactical changes during the tune-up matches, and he showed his quality with beautiful assists in each of the final two matches. Bradley is the best field player the Americans have, and it’s not all that close. Dempsey, meanwhile, has worked well off of Altidore in both the tune-ups and throughout the qualifying campaign, and the U.S. needs him to maintain the form he’s shown for Seattle throughout this MLS season. There’s not much to parse about these two: if they are their typical selves, the U.S. will have a chance to move on. If they aren’t, it’ll be a short trip.