AFTER TWO LACKLUSTER LOSSES IN THE 2009 CONFEDERATIONS CUP, U.S. COACH BOB BRADLEY SHOOK UP HIS SQUAD FOR ITS LAST GROUP GAME, AGAINST EGYPT, BY GIVING JOZY ALTIDORE, who had been playing as a lone striker, a partner: Charlie Davies. Before then the two forwards had been on the field together only twice, for 30 minutes. But this time they clicked immediately, as Davies turned in an Altidore cross in the 21st minute, the first of three goals the Yanks would score in a win that, against all odds, saw them through to the semis. Bradley stuck with the 4-4-2 (with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the flanks) in the knockout stages, shocking Spain 2-0 and causing 198 million Brazilians to nearly choke on their churrasco by taking an early 2-0 lead in the title game before falling 3-2.
That defeat was tough to take, but there was solace to be found in the fact that the Americans had stumbled upon a lineup that seemed to work. The sanguine feelings lasted until October, when Davies, 23, was a passenger in a terrible car crash that killed a friend and left Davies with a ruptured bladder, bleeding on the brain and a litany of broken bones (nose, forehead, eye socket, left elbow and two bones in the right leg).
Davies made a remarkable recovery; after his last operation, in mid-February (on the elbow), he posted a post-op Twitpic of the sutured wound and returned to France to rehab apart from his club team, Sochaux. But his status for South Africa—expected to play but lacking the match fitness needed for a monthlong tournament—is an all-too-familiar one for Bradley.
If Davies can't play—or, if he can, during the times he must rest—Bradley will have three options with his strike force, each with a price. Dempsey is probably the best finisher on the U.S. team (he scored three times in the Confederations Cup and had six goals in 24 Premier League games for Fulham), but playing him up top leaves a hole on the right side of midfield. Altidore could go back to playing as a lone striker—he has the size and strength—but he's far more dangerous when playing off another forward. Or Bradley could use one of the many unproven forwards at his disposal: Brian Ching, Conor Casey, Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley. Ching and Casey are big, Cunningham and Findley are speedy, but none is especially good.
The question of whether or not to play Dempsey up top could be moot if he doesn't recover from his own injury woes. Dempsey tore a ligament in his right knee in January; he returned to the field in mid-March, leaving concerns about how fit he will be come June. (Naturally, Bradley's second choice at right wing, Stuart Holden, suffered a fractured right shin in early March that would sideline him for six weeks, leaving his participation up in the air too.) If Dempsey doesn't play in the midfield, it would mean the end of a dangerous wing partnership with Donovan, who is in the best form of his career. After tying for third in MLS in scoring, he went overseas (where he had struggled mightily on two trips to Germany) and thrived on loan to Everton. In 10 games he scored two goals, set up four others and inspired Toffees fans—who voted him the team's player of the month the first time he was eligible—to start a Facebook group called "Keep Landon Donovan at Everton!!" that had about 7,000 fans in its first two months.
Oguchi Onyewu's performance at the Confederations Cup earned him a transfer to powerhouse AC Milan in July. Three months later, while playing for the national team, the hulking center back—true to form for these Yanks—suffered a ruptured left patellar tendon. Even without Onyewu, who still hopes to anchor the U.S. back four in South Africa, the Yanks will be tough to score on: With starter Tim Howard and subs Brad Guzan and Marcus Hahnemann, the U.S. might have the deepest goalkeeping corps in South Africa.