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It’s happened again: The U.S. national team has qualified for the finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and is currently ranked 11th in the world. For a nation that’s supposedly indifferent to the world’s game, that’s not a bad day’s work. This is a team with a lot to celebrate. They’re tops in the North American regional federation (CONCACAF) and have made it to the last six World Cups in a row. This is a team that beat arguably the best national side in the world by two goals and gave mighty Brazil a rough time.
Sadly, it’s all going to end with a whimper. The U.S. men’s team, barring a lot of luck, might not even make it past the group stages next summer in South Africa.
This is a team with the traditional strengths of American soccer: They’re athletic, they can run all day, they work hard, and they stay organized. They also suffer from the traditional weaknesses of American soccer: Unintelligent play, lack of creativity, and serious problems in attack. Team USA can simply out-run and out-muscle a lot of weaker sides from small Central American countries, but they can’t expect to get the same results by sheer effort at the World Cup. South American powerhouses full of deft, crafty midfielders like Brazil and Argentina will simply pass their way around the midfield to create oodles of chances, while bruising European heavyweights like Germany and Holland will be able to win the ball in the midfield and defense and score with lightning counterattacks.
Team USA is also battling injury worries with some of their most important players: Defender Oguchi Onyewu, who was so critical to America’s superb run in the Confederations Cup has a serious tendon injury, and striker Charlie Davies was just involved in a car accident that claimed the life of a young woman. (Clearly, he’ll have other things on his mind when he finishes having an assload of surgery.) Onyewu could return, Davies will almost certainly not. Both absences are serious blows to the team. Without Onyewu, the defense loses solidity, and without Davies, there’s no obvious candidate to create space for playmaker Landon Donovan.
Of course, I could be wrong. Jozy Altidore is an exciting young talent up front and might burst upon the world stage like a Patriot Cruise Missile. Donovan is one of the very few American soccer players that gets much respect overseas, and he deserves every bit of it. But those two aside, I don’t see where the goals are going to come from for this team. Clint Dempsey? He’s all right in the air, but he’s hardly going to be a threat to score in every game. Brian Ching? Please.
And without Onyewu, Team USA’s back line begins to look more than a little worrying. Jonathan Spector has put in the odd decent performance for the national team, but he looks wildly out of his depth whenever he plays for West Ham United. Jimmy Conrad is old. Frankie Hejduk – though still capable – is older. Jonathan Bornstein doesn’t inspire any confidence.
In short, I think that the caliber of the competition in South Africa this summer is going to cruelly expose the flaws in this Team USA that was so recently flying high at the Confederations Cup. Without sufficient force going forward, opponents will be able to soak up pressure and score freely on the break. If everyone was going to be healthy, then you might not bet against the U.S. doing some damage in the knockout stages, but as it is, I’ll be impressed if they get there at all.
Check back soon as Jeff Christenbury gives his reasons on why the US will succeed at the World Cup…