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World Cup 2014 Previews, Group G: The United States

omar-gonzalez-chugging-a-beer

Team: United States of America
Group: G
Schedule: June 16 vs. Ghana (5:30 p.m., ESPN); June 22 vs. Portugal (5:30 p.m., ESPN); June 26 vs. Germany (11:30 a.m., ESPN)
World Cup Record: 7-17-5 (Semifinals 1930, Quarterfinals 2002)
Qualifying Form: After losing the first game in the CONCACAF Hex to Honduras last February, questions arose over the Jurgen Klinsmann regime. A fortuitous snow storm outside Denver last March helped the U.S. get on track with a vital 1-0 win over Costa Rica. From there the U.S. got its act together and qualified in September with a tidy 2-0 win over Mexico, as expected.

Manager: Jurgen Klinsmann, who dropped the umlaut in his name after taking the U.S. job in 2011 after years of flirtation from U.S. Soccer Federation boss Sunil Gulati. Klinsmann likes to fly helicopters and wear stylish pocket tees. He won’t be exchanging Christmas cards with Landon Donovan or Michael Wilbon. Add it all up and Klinsmann’s opened himself to as much criticism as anyone ever involved with American soccer.

There’s also this (awesome) song about him:

Most-Important Player: Michael Bradley. If there was one tangible, (positive) takeaway from the 2010 World Cup it was that Bradley was the player to build the National Team around in the future. He hasn’t disappointed. Given that he’s American and now playing for Toronto FC, the world soccer media is never going to fawn over Bradley. That shouldn’t really matter — nor did it matter his father formerly coached the team since Bradley’s place in the squad was always merit-based.

In the current American set-up, Bradley a “midfield General” in every sense of the cliché, commanding respect from teammates and opponents alike. He’s also playing further up the field, pinging passes to forwards and making late runs into the penalty area is a much more effective use of his talents than as a shield of the back four.

Something to consider: Claudio Reyna, revered by some in the U.S. soccer media as the best midfielder in the federation’s history, made the American roster for four World Cups, although he only played in 1998, 2002, 2006. Over the span the U.S. only won one game started by Reyna — the 2002 Round of 16 match vs. Mexico. Call it coincidence or bad luck (injuries were a constant theme in Reyna’s career), but Bradley, 26,  in one World Cup has played in as many U.S. wins — 2010 vs. Algeria.

Key Player: Jozy Altidore endured a miserable season at Sunderland in England, scoring only twice. After scoring 31 goals — a record for Americans in Europe — the previous season in the Netherlands at AZ. In his U.S. career Altidore has scored in 18 different games for 23 total goals, including an upset win over Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup. The United States’ record in games Altidore has scored? 16-0-2.

Altidore broke a scoring drought that dated back to December over the weekend vs. Nigeria with two goals — the second of the spectacular variety.

If Altidore is at his best, the United States has a chance to trouble its highly-regarded foes. If he struggles, the U.S. is often playing 10 vs. 11.

Jozy Altidore goal 2 vs Nigeria-b

[RELATED: The Big Lead 2014 World Cup Previews]

Player American Fans Don’t Want to See on the Field: Omar Gonzalez. Nothing personal here at all. Gonzalez posted my favorite athlete “viral video” of 2013 last Thanksgiving. As you can see from the GIF at the top of this post, he is U-S-A through and through. That said, he’s looked dreadful in the three pre-World Cup friendlies. A wild lunge against Nigeria led to Matt Besler needing to commit a penalty late in the match. Odds are Gonzalez won’t see the field, now that Klinsmann has shifted Geoff Cameron to center back next to Besler. John Brooks, four years younger than Gonzalez, is first off the bench if the U.S. needs help in the middle of the defense.

Jermaine Jones sno-fro

The Legend of Jermaine Jones: Late last month I was lucky enough to attend the U.S. Soccer/ESPN pep rally in Times Square, where I logged a career highlight: interviewing Ian Darke. Getting an up close look (think two feet away) at the U.S. team was illuminating — Clint Dempsey is a lot taller/rangier than he comes across on television, Kyle Beckerman’s dreads will not get you a contact high, Mix Diskerud’s hair is glorious, DaMarcus Beasley’s beard doesn’t get nearly enough love on the Internet, etc.

Somehow Jermaine Jones left the biggest impression — and not only for his stars-and-stripes kneecap tattoo. It’s difficult to quantify what it exactly was about Jones that day, but there was something magnetic about him. He wore a bemused smirk at all times, like he’s in on a private joke only he knows about. This goes against the way he plays on the field where he’s always one rash move from a red card. This is the guy who almost got a yellow card disputing a throw-in call vs. Azerbaijan. Jones has been a polarizing player throughout the U.S. fanbase mainly since he’s been an automatic starter under Klinsmann despite his often erratic, foul-prone play. In real life, however, he seemed to be chill as hell, the kind of guy you’d like to drink a ‘Sno Fro Stout’ with.

For better or worse, Jones is my favorite player on this team.

[RELATED: The World Cup Badass XI: The Coolest Players Ever To Play On The World’s Greatest Stage]

U.S. Player Whose Stock will Increase the Most: Fabian Johnson. An underrated star during the U.S. run to the quarterfinals in 2002 was Tony Sanneh at right back getting forward. Johnson has the capability to do the same, if he isn’t too consumed trying to defending opposing left wingers such as Ronaldo. His goal — set up by a Michael Bradley pass — vs. Turkey was one to remember. Runners up: Alejandro Bedoya, Aron Johannsson.

You Play … to Get … Results: Klinsmann inherited a team from Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011 which didn’t play the prettiest soccer of all time, but it was a team that got results when it mattered … so long as the opponent wasn’t named Ghana … or Mexico, at least in the 2011 Gold Cup. Gulati introduced Klinsmann as a man to implement sweeping institutional changes across American soccer. As of yet? Those changes are wide open for debate. Implementing a “national style” in a country of 350+ million as vast as the United States often feels like a pipe dream of a highly-paid corporate soccer think tank.

Less debatable is when Klinsmann uses a Bradley-type approach, the results have been better. The U.S., regardless of how many dual-nationals Klinsmann recruited , won’t thrive in a free-flowing 4-3-3 system in 2014. Hell, a relatively conservation 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield left Tim Howard battered by an array of shots by Turkey in a pre-World Cup friendly last month.  However in the final tune-up game, using a 4-2-3-1 with Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as defensive midfield shields freed up Bradley and the team looked dangerous on the counterattack — the same recipe that’s worked for years.

The time for sweeping changes into the ethos of American soccer players won’t come in Brazil. Klinsmann looks like he’s realized that.

[RELATED: Seven Bold World Cup Guesses Guaranteed(*) to Come True]

Offensive defense: Stats in soccer can often be misleading. Klinsmann has been in charge of the USMNT for 49 matches. It’s kept a clean sheet in 19 of those games — 38 percent. That seems like a nice total. However if you’ve watched those games the U.S. defense inspires anything but confidence. Going into Brazil it appears Klinsmann has settled on a back four of Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley.

The less we all collectively think about the U.S. defense before kickoff vs. Ghana, the better. Here’s something to take your mind off it.

Can the U.S. beat Ghana? Yes. Ghana is good — arguably the team best in Africa, but it’s not some sort of soccer version of the 1985 Chicago Bears combined with the 1996 Chicago Bulls, as some pundits would lead you to believe. Ghana is strong, especially in the midfield, but it’s not an unbeatable side, either. Both teams like to play off the counter attack, so figure this is a match about taking advantage of mistakes and converting chances. The speed of Ghana can’t be overlooked. One errant pass in the midfield and Asamoah Gyan will be off to the races.

Cristiano Ronaldo hit in the head with a lighter

Can the U.S. beat Portugal? Maybe. The U.S. already did this in 2002. Repeating history will be harder, unless Ronaldo has a bad day. On top of how good Ronaldo is, Portugal is going to be hard to crack defensively and probably won’t allow many clear chances. The Americans don’t have the passing nous to get through Joao Moutinho, William Carvalho, et al. Even if they get close to goal, Pepe and Bruno Alves form a solid last line of defense. To nick something off Portugal, Tim Howard will have to play like he did in the 2009 Confederations Cup.

If nothing else, this match should give the majority of American soccer fans yet another reason to loathe Ronaldo, regardless of his all-world skills.

Can the U.S. beat Germany?: You know what … they’ll have a shot. As intimidating as Germany is in the attacking part of the field, its defense isn’t air-tight — Cameroon and Armenia both scored vs. the Germans in pre-World Cup matches. Mats Hummels’ form continues to erode. Per Mertesacker is always in the right place, but might be among the slowest men in soccer. Jérôme Boateng and Kevin Großkreutz could each start out of their natural positions as fullbacks for Germany. On top of that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira aren’t 100 percent. Expecting them to play three games in 10 days is unrealistic, something that bodes well since this the final Group Stage match for the U.S. Given the styles, the U.S. will have chances to score vs. Germany …  you have to hope it’s not in a game that ends in a 5-2 loss.

Random Fun Fact: 2014 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates fame, sang the vocals on “Gloryland,” the 1994 World Cup theme song.

All A Matter of Perspective: The World Cup is great. (Copy-and-paste that to take it out of context in the comments, if you must.) It’s also a tournament that happens once every four years and you’re only guaranteed three matches — hardly a large enough sample size to draw sweeping conclusions. In the modern climate of American soccer, few expect the team to win the tournament advance. A baseline, fair expectation each World Cup for the U.S. is getting through the Group Stage under the assumption anything can happen in the knockout rounds. Obviously, with the bad luck of the draw in December, the U.S. got lumped in a “Group of Death,” and subsequently everyone wrote off their chances long ago.

However the three games play out, Klinsmann’s decision-making in the last month — dropping Landon Donovan — coupled with his comments from last December that ran in the New York Times that the U.S., “cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” means the American sports media knives are going to be out in full force, even if this is a somewhat transitional period away from the Donovan/Dempsey core of the 2006/2010 World Cups.

Something to remember: although the playing field is leveling in world soccer, the list of nations that can realistically target winning the World Cup in 2014 remains short: Brazil, Spain, Argentina, Germany, Italy and then maybe France, Uruguay, Belgium or more outsiders like Chile. This isn’t the NFL or even 2014 baseball, in terms of parity. Eventually talent wins out over heart and determination or any other sort of “rah rah” tactic.

Regardless of how the action in Brazil plays out, there’s a 98.9 percent chance U.S. Soccer faces a similar set of questions and doubt four years from now. Busting through FIFA ‘s glass ceiling isn’t easy — or guaranteed. As negative as this might sound, before the ball kicks off Monday in Natal, the U.S. is still alive and has, if nothing else, a fighting chance.

Final Word: Rock. Flag. Jurgen.

Jurgen-fist-pump

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