When it comes to the 2010 World Cup, the goal for the United States is clear: progress to the knockout stages. This is especially true in light of the favorable draw the Americans received. While it would be a stretch to call the group easy, it certainly looks navigable compared to previous tournaments. England is clearly the class of the group, but it is expected that the U.S. will make its way safely past Algeria and Slovenia.
Of course, what's expected in the World Cup often doesn't come to pass, and given the glut of injuries the U.S. has sustained in 2010, as well as the tricky nature of its opponents, the team is well aware that it can't take anything for granted. The team's disappointing showing four years earlier, when it was eliminated at the group stage, should provide plenty of motivation.
Coach: Bob Bradley
Bradley's conservative nature makes him a reviled figure with some segments of the U.S. fan base. Yet Bradley is highly respected by current and former players, a group that includes World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff as well as one-time European Footballer of the Year Hristo Stoichkov. Bradley has also reached almost every goal set for him by the U.S. Soccer Federation, winning the 2007 Gold Cup, reaching the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup, and finishing atop the Americans' World Cup qualifying group.
As a tactician, Bradley's record is mixed. There have been times when his changes have been spot-on, like when he introduced Benny Feilhaber at halftime of a crucial World Cup qualifier against Honduras. At other times, Bradley has shown too much loyalty to veteran performers who were clearly out of form.
Style of play
If there is one trait Bradley prizes above all others, it's being "tough to play against." In part, this is an acknowledgement that the U.S. is short of highly technical players, and this has manifested itself on the field by utilizing a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders. Earlier in qualifying, the team adopted a 4-2-3-1, but the lone striker alignment was shelved after a series of indifferent attacking displays.
Against the stronger teams, the U.S. adopts a defend-and-counter strategy, and at times it has worked brilliantly, as in the Confederations Cup semifinal win against Spain. But on days when the goalkeeping and defending aren't at their peak, the U.S. has fallen short. Against weaker teams that are content to let the U.S. take the attacking initiative, the Americans have struggled to break down organized defenses.
Players to watch
1. Landon Donovan. It's not a stretch to say that as Donovan goes, so goes the U.S. team. The Americans' all-time leading scorer is clearly the team's most dynamic attacking player, with his passing, speed, and vision from the left side of midfield. On a team that struggles in possession, however, there are times when he can be starved of service and effectively neutralized. Donovan was a revelation in the 2002 World Cup, but struggled mightily in 2006 and will be eager to make amends.
2. Clint Dempsey. On the opposite flank the U.S. has Dempsey, a wild card who is dynamic with the ball at his feet, and who is capable of delivering the unexpected. With forward Charlie Davies omitted from the squad due to injury, Dempsey could see time up top, where he has shown a penchant for popping up for critical goals.
3. Tim Howard. For the U.S. to progress, keeper Howard must be at the top of his game. He delivered a massive performance in the aforementioned upset of Spain, but when he was merely good in the final against Brazil, the U.S. succumbed. Howard enters the tournament having delivered some sharp performances for EPL side Everton. He's also been the clear No. 1 keeper for the U.S. throughout qualifying, and this combination of success at both club and international level reveals a player at his peak.
Donovan. His impressive loan spell with Everton silenced critics that said he couldn't hack it in Europe, and should give him loads of confidence heading into the tournament.
Dempsey. Despite picking up several injuries over the course of the campaign, Dempsey enjoyed something of a breakout season with Fulham, and, like Donovan, will enter the tournament on a high.
Michael Bradley. The U.S. midfielder has been ever-present for both the U.S. and club side Borussia Monchengladbach, and while defense remains his calling card, he has also improved his ability to make the killer pass.
Jozy Altidore. The U.S. forward scored just twice while on loan for EPL side Hull City this season, and let his temper get the better of him late in the campaign when he earned a red card against Sunderland for head-butting an opponent.
Jonathan Spector. Granted, Spector was asked to play out of position at left back for West Ham United, but struggled mightily in that role, both in terms of his aerial game and his one-on-one defending.
Three key questions
1. Will the walking wounded recover in time? There are several U.S. players nursing injuries, but most of the concern will center on defender Oguchi Onyewu, who is attempting to recover from a torn patellar tendon in his left knee that he suffered in October. Onyewu did not feature in a competitive match until the two recent friendlies, and his ability to shake off the rust will play a huge role in how Bob Bradley constructs his back line. If Onyewu recovers, Carlos Bocanegra can slide out to the troublesome left back spot. If not, Bocanegra will be forced to remain in the middle, leaving Bradley to rely on less consistent performers like Jonathan Bornstein. This assumes that Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit can shake off the abdominal strains that plagued them in training camp.
2. Will a second forward emerge? With Davies unable to recover in time from injuries sustained in a car accident in October, the slot to play alongside Altidore remains open. Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez and Robbie Findley are all vying for that spot. It's possible -- some would say probable -- that Dempsey could move up top from his normal midfield position. Given Dempsey's penchant for the unexpected, he is likely to be the pick unless one of the other forwards steps up.
3. Can the U.S. possess the ball well enough? This team isn't going to turn into Brazil or Holland overnight, but to progress to the next round it will need to show more of an ability to keep the ball, especially when trying to close out games. Nominal substitutes Feilhaber and Jose Torres could help in this regard, but Michael Bradley -- and whoever starts alongside him -- will need to find ways to control the tempo against Slovenia and Algeria. Otherwise the pressure on the team's backline may become too great.
G Tim Howard, Everton (England)
D Jonathan Spector, West Ham United (England)
D Oguchi Onyewu, AC Milan (Italy)
D Jay DeMerit, Watford (England)
D Carlos Bocanegra, Stade Rennais (France)
M Stuart Holden, Bolton Wanderers (England)
M Michael Bradley, Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany)
M Maurice Edu, Rangers (Scotland)
M Landon Donovan, Los Angeles Galaxy (U.S.)
F Jozy Altidore, Hull City (England)
F Clint Dempsey, Fulham (England)