World Cup 2014 is underway and the U.S. Men’s National Team is set to face some difficult competition in Group G, when they take on Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the “Group of Death.”
Two of the four teams will advance, with Germany heavily favored to reach the Round of 16, and the other three countries contending for the runner-up spot. The winner and runner-up will face opponents from Group H, which is considered among the weakest in the tournament.
While the chips appear to be stacked against the U.S., the Americans have a strong squad and it would not be shocking for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad to advance. The U.S. finished first in CONCACAF qualifying, easily finishing ahead of main rival Mexico, who finished fourth.
All three of the U.S.’s group games are expected to be intriguing. Up first is Ghana, who eliminated the U.S. in the extra session of the 2010 World Cup. In fact, all four clubs advanced beyond the group stage in 2010. The Yanks are expected to be particularly aggressive against Ghana, and pending the result of that match, would play slightly more cautious against the highly skilled squads of Portugal and Germany.
Klinsmann caused a stir when he decided to leave attacking midfielder/forward Landon Donovan off the 23-man roster. Arguably the all-time greatest American soccer player, Donovan was looking to participate in his fourth World Cup.
But there are still plenty of players to step up in Donovan’s absence. Here are some of Team USA’s top players to watch for in Brazil 2014:
After a long spell playing in London for Fulham and Tottenham, the Seattle Sounders star has proven to be a versatile attack-minded player. In Brazil, he is expected to play as a forward though he will likely drop back when needed. Dempsey’s last World Cup goal was scored against England off a horrendous goalkeeping mistake by Robert Green. But the 31-year-old will be apt to provide a more memorable snapshot of what is expected to be his final World Cup. Expect Dempsey to set up his teammates with important opportunities to score, and to be the first to pounce on any loose balls in the box.
Dempsey remains a special player, and all indications suggest he will be in top form in Brazil.
Among the best goalkeepers in the World Cup, Howard brings not only experience but tremendous instincts. Howard still has fine athleticism to make difficult saves, but perhaps his most valuable attribute is how he does the little things. The 35-year-old is excellent at directing traffic, making accurate throws on counter-attacks, and choosing the right side for penalty kicks.
It’s highly improbable that Howard will let the U.S. down with a blunder. Opponents need to come up with a quality shot to beat him.
The most obvious starter on the team, Bradley is in his prime and out to prove that he deserves to play on the best clubs in the world. After successful campaigns in Serie A and already with 86 caps for the U.S., he is well-traveled, experienced and poised for greatness. One might say that the torch has been passed from Donovan to Bradley, and the playmaker has the opportunity to be the hero for the U.S. team. Klinsmann will likely use Bradley in every minute of every match, and will rely on the 26-year-old to make sure wings and forwards are properly involved.
If there is one player to hone in on, it’s Bradley because he means so much to the Yanks’ possession, creativity and attack.
Johnson has arguably the most difficult job of any player on the U.S. team. As a right back, Johnson is expected to face tough competition from Group G left-side attackers. It will be Johnson’s responsibility to deny crosses into the box, and easing pressure on center backs by slowing down players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao of Portugal, and Marco Reus, Mario Gotze or Lukas Podolski of Germany. Juventus star Kwadwo Asamoah could be used on the left side for Ghana, and is capable of being the best player on the field against the Yanks. Johnson has a great deal of experience in the Bundesliga, but not much for the U.S. since arriving in 2011. The 26-year-old is a more than serviceable defender and is playing at about his best level.
There is a lot of pressure on Johnson to hold his ground. He needs to maintain his composure on defense, and still create opportunities on counter attacks.
Only 24, but Altidore has already had many highs and lows. He was stellar in the Dutch league for AZ Alkmaar in two seasons (31 goals in 41 matches), but lost his scoring touch in 2013-2014 with Premier League club Sunderland. For the U.S., he is the first-choice striker, and has done a solid job taking advantage of his chances. But there is some concern that he can step up on the biggest stage after barely ever finding the net with Sunderland. Whether Altidore can step up in Brazil may depend on how much he has learned from Klinsmann, who probably knows more about the striker position than any other head coach in the tournament.
Altidore has shown flashes of brilliance over the course of his short career. His skills and heart should not be underestimated.
U.S. Roster (23-man):
Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders (8): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
Midfielders (8): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
USA vs. Ghana Monday, June 16 6 p.m ET; from Natal (ESPN)
USA vs. Portugal Sunday, June 22 6 p.m. ET from Manuas (ESPN)
USA vs. Germany Thursday, June 26 12 p.m ET from Recife (ESPN)