THE 2014 WORLD CUP comes at a fascinating time for U.S. soccer. Fair or not, the tournament in Brazil may well provide a verdict of sorts on the hot button issue of the moment—the increased proportion of national team stars who play in MLS. The 2014 squad will likely feature the biggest MLS presence since 2002 when, for what it’s worth, the team raced to the quarterfinals.
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The Americans enjoyed an exceptional 2013 campaign, finishing atop the Hexagonal, winning the Gold Cup, and securing some impressive wins against European opponents—including a 4-3 win over Group G opponent Germany.
But all of that will mean very little if the U.S. underperforms in the World Cup. And the situation is far from ideal as the World Cup approaches: Several key players—Clint Dempsey, for one—look short of form and injuries have mounted as Jurgen Klinsmann prepares his men for Brazil.
Though there are a few issues to contend with, the United States national team will be quietly confident as it prepares to do battle in the Group of Death. This is probably the deepest team in U.S. World Cup history, and the tournament arrives at what should be a promising time for a number of American stars.
The talent is certainly there for the U.S. to emerge from the tournament’s most difficult group. It will be up to Klinsmann to make sure his team is firing on all cylinders when it takes the field in June.—BLAKE THOMSEN
The CoachJURGEN KLINSMANN recently signed a contract extension through the 2018 World Cup, so the U.S. national team's performance in Brazil will not determine if he keeps his job. Still, the coming World Cup is a massive opportunity for Klinsmann to show the world just how much progress he has made with the Stars and Stripes during the past three years. The United States enjoyed a record-breaking year in 2013, and Klinsmann deserves much of the credit for this. But the coach also suffered through a humiliating controversy, in which his tactical abilities were called into question—by his own players. Coincidence or not, the team seemed to rally around its coach after that story surfaced, at one point rattling off 12 wins in a row. Klinsmann exceeded expectations in his previous World Cup appearance, guiding Germany to a surprise semifinal appearance. He’ll be looking to exceed expectations this time around as well, ideally with a similar attacking flourish. If Klinsmann can guide the U.S. to the knockout stage and beyond, he’ll cement his status as a top-class international manager.
The TacticsFROM DAY ONE Klinsmann has expressed his desire for the U.S. to take the game to its opponents—a break from the traditional American defend-and-counter style. We’ve certainly seen flashes of improved possession and willingness to pass the ball out of the back under Klinsmann, but the U.S. is still years away from dictating play in the same stratosphere as Spain or Brazil. Klinsmann’s preferred setup throughout qualifying was a 4-2-3-1, with a general emphasis on driving runs from the center of midfield and crosses from the wide areas as the main source of goals. In 2014, however, the coach seemed to embrace a 4-4-2 alignment, with a diamond midfield featuring Michael Bradley in the forward-most position. The U.S. is typically disciplined defensively and works hard without the ball. Klinsmann’s team certainly presses higher up the field than Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena’s did, and the higher pressing can cause turnovers leading to quick counterattacks and scoring opportunities. The flip side is that the back line leaves more space behind for through balls, which can be ruthlessly exploited by world-class opposition—think Belgium’s 4-2 win in May.
The HistoryTHE UNITED STATES ENJOYED a modicum of success in early World Cups before a 40-year absence from the competition spanning 1950 to 1990. The U.S. has since qualified for seven consecutive tournaments, and a curious trend has emerged. The Yanks have alternated between progression out of the group and a group stage exit every other tournament—not that it’s too significant, but the pattern would suggest that the U.S. will not get out of the group in Brazil. The U.S.’s best ever showing came in South Korea/Japan in 2002, when the Yanks made it out of a difficult group and then beat Mexico in the knockout stage before losing a controversial heartbreaker against Germany in the quarterfinals. The 2010 World Cup provided the most dramatic moment in U.S. soccer history, with Landon Donovan clinching a place in the knockout stage with a stunning stoppage time winner against Algeria. Given the difficulty of the Americans’ group this time around, progression from the group would be a historic achievement.
They Said It...
“I think it’s an extremely tough group, which we expected, but the fact that it’s tough does not mean that we can’t advance through the group. I think we can. We’ll have to play at our best but I think we can.”
—Tim Howard “Group of Death. When you look closer, four teams that in the last World Cup in 2010 all got out of their group. On our end, we know that we’re going to be tested at the highest level every minute of every game, but you don’t go to the World Cup expecting any easy games.”
—Michael Bradley “It’s going to be a difficult group, and there are a lot of other difficult groups as well. There’s excitement amongst our team because we have a good group of guys. And this is what the World Cup’s about, playing the best teams. The trick is to get off to a good start, try to get out of the group and then see what happens.”
—Clint Dempsey “I’m not worried at all. I’ll just take it the way it is and we’re going to prepare the best way and we’re going to be well prepared for the World Cup. We’ll build up confidence and believe that we can get good results to get into the next round. We’ll do our homework on Portugal, Germany and Ghana. We’re excited about this, big time. That’s where you want to be in a World Cup. It’s a difficult draw but we’ll find a way to go through it.”
—Jurgen Klinsmann “For me, I was born in Germany and have played my whole life here. My mom is German and all my friends are Germans living in Germany. It’s a big game. It was big when we were playing in Washington, D.C., but now it’s a World Cup and a higher level.”
—Jermaine Jones “Ronaldo is a phenomenal talent. There’s not a one-man-defending show to stop him. You’re going to need the whole team basically, but we know and we’re going to try our best to do that. If he’s on my side, I’m going to try to push him inside not let him get you in a one-on-one and also have help from my midfielders and defenders.”
—DaMarcus Beasley “The hard part is getting to the World Cup, and that’s something that we have done already. Once you qualify for the World Cup – and, we’re talking about the biggest sporting event in the world – I think it’s anyone’s opportunity to lift the trophy and be considered the best country in the world. Unfortunately we got some really good countries that have some unbelievable players and good experience. At the end of the day, you want to play against the best. We couldn’t have a better opportunity than to play against such amazing countries as Ghana, Portugal and Germany.”
—Eddie Johnson “We saw once everything was finished that we’re getting a really difficult draw. I think it pretty much is the Group of Death. Nothing’s going to be easy when you go to the World Cup and we’re going to be prepared by the time we get down to Brazil. Now, I think everyone is just excited to play the games. It’s going to be an exciting 2014.”