With confident star and its deepest team, U.S. has cause for optimism
A more poised and mature Landon Donovan could have his finest World Cup
Doubts remain about whether central defender Oguchi Onyewu is at full strength
The U.S. has never brought a deeper or more talented squad to the World Cup
With its pre-World Cup warmups over, the next time we see the U.S. team (against England on Saturday) it'll be the real thing. Here are five impressions of the U.S. team entering the tournament as it hopes to improve on the miserable showing in 2006 where it failed to win a game:
1. Landon Donovan is confident and primed for a strong display. Donovan's importance to the U.S. team has been stated often and this will be his third tournament. The key thing to note here is that Donovan had vastly contrasting mind-sets entering each of his two previous World Cups -- with decidedly different results. As a 20-year-old in 2002 who was yet to develop into the focal point of the team, he was young and fearless and played with a brash, more aggressive disposition that served him well. However, by 2006 that Donovan had been replaced with a more tentative, less confident version that was asked to be a leader and unable to handle the responsibility. Circa 2010, and following a loan stint in the English Premiership where he excelled with Everton, the Donovan who arrives in South Africa is more mature and confident than ever before.
"I proved something to myself," Donovan told SI's Joe Posnanski. "I proved to myself that I could play at a high level game after game. I couldn't do that before. I always needed something outside myself. I used to be on the field and think, 'Maybe I'll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud, and that will lift me up.' I realized I don't need that."
There's still a tendency for some U.S. fans to expect far more from Donovan than is realistic. Although he is for all intents and purposes the U.S. team's playmaker, he's not a classic No. 10 who can grab a game by the scruff of its neck or dribble past several defenders with any frequency. In fact, when it comes to producing something out of the ordinary for the U.S., it's more likely that Donovan's partner-in-crime on the other wing, Clint Dempsey, will be the one to pull it off. However, there's also no doubt that Donovan is the engine that makes the U.S. team go -- he's the key to the its transition game with his ability to push the ball with pace and choose the right options. For a team that's as dependent on the counterattack as the U.S. is, he's the critical piece of the puzzle.
2. Oguchi Onyewu is still something of a gamble. It's a testament to Onyewu's powers of recuperation and dedication that he's managed to recover from a ruptured patellar tendon last October in time for South Africa. However, even though Onyewu's lack of match fitness is offset by the nature of his position (central defenders typically don't run nearly as much in a game as their teammates), his shortage of match sharpness is worrisome. Add to this the fact that his running gait, and possibly his jumping ability, is clearly still hindered and you have to wonder if coach Bob Bradley will start him against England or deem it too much of a gamble to throw him in at the deep end against the likes of Wayne Rooney.
Onyewu himself doesn't think it's an issue. "I don't think that I've shown in the last two games any signs of weakness in my game,'' Onyewu told The Associated Press. Fans had better hope so because the alternatives aren't too appealing: Clarence Goodson hasn't been entirely convincing as his stand-in, while shifting captain Carlos Bocanegra back into the middle would entail starting the error-prone Jonathan Bornstein at left back.
3. The forwards and formation. One could argue that given its strengths at midfield as compared to forwards, the U.S. might be better suited deploying a single striker in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 configuration. However, for the most part coach Bob Bradley has stuck with the 4-4-2, which makes the most sense simply because the U.S. doesn't have the spearhead forward or battering-ram type player the lone forward role requires. Jozy Altidore may someday be that player, but as his past season at Hull showed, he's still developing and far more comfortable when paired with another forward. Furthermore, while Donovan or Dempsey could play in the hole or as a trequartista, the case could be made that neither is ideally suited for it. Donovan, in particular, thrives in open space on the counter, which playing on the wing affords him.
As such, the question is, Who should start with Altidore at forward? Edson Buddle's brace against Australia went a long way toward convincing people that he can carry over his domestic form to the international stage -- although the concern might be that he's too similar in type to Altidore to partner with him effectively. This has long been a staple of management theory: the notion that two players with similar skill-sets and attributes cannot thrive together if paired. While it's certainly true in the case of two speedy, diminutive front men or two static target men, both Buddle and Altidore are mobile enough to make one think that pairing the two could be a consideration.
Alternatively, the safer choice would be to opt for Herculez Gomez, who has shown some real goal-poaching instinct in the last few warmups. Real Salt Lake's Robbie Findley has pace to burn, but as his two open-goal misses against Australia indicate, he is probably best utilized as a late-game sub to run at tired legs.
4. The England matchup on Saturday. England is still the group favorite, and I'd argue one of the most difficult matchups possible for the U.S. given the two team's similarity in styles of play and England's overall man-for-man superiority. However, thanks to a couple of key injuries, the gap between Fabio Capello's men and the U.S. has tightened considerably. Gareth Barry's uncertain status means that Steven Gerrard is likely to be deployed in a holding midfield role alongside Frank Lampard against the U.S. Aside from the age-old debate about whether Gerrard can function effectively alongside Lampard in midfield (so far, the answer is a resounding no), Barry's absence is doubly concerning for England. First, it leaves England without a true ball winner. While Gerrard is still capable of the spectacular crunching tackle, he lacks the box-to-box energy of his younger years and it's also questionable if he has the positional discipline to play a true holding role. Second, these days he's far more effective in an attacking role either out wide, as he does for England, or in the hole, as he does for his club team. Playing deep for England robs Capello of one of his most dynamic attackers.
The other key injury, of course, is to captain Rio Ferdinand. Of all the center backs at Capello's disposal, Ferdinand was the most indispensable -- and not just because he wore the armband. Ferdinand is the team's only center back with pace, which means that all of a sudden England is a lot more vulnerable to the likes of Donovan and the U.S. counterattack.
5. 2002 vs. 2010. While I'd argue that the starting lineup for the 2002 U.S. World Cup team is superior to this edition's (the central midfield tandem of Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien ultimately gives the '02 team the edge), it's safe to say that this is the most talented and deepest U.S. World Cup squad. Aided by practically the easiest group it could have drawn, there's no doubt the minimum requirement for this U.S. team is to advance to the second round. How far the U.S. goes will depend on whether it can displace England to win Group C. If it does, the U.S. would be looking at a far more favorable projected path of Serbia and then either France/Mexico to reach the semifinals, as opposed to a second-place Group C finish that would put it in line to face Germany and then Argentina on the other side of the bracket.
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