US Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has caused a bit of a firestorm in the media with some of his recent decisions and comments. Klinsmann cut Landon Donovan, the United States’ all-time leading goalscorer, keeping him off the plane to Brazil in lieu of younger, sprier talents. Jürgen also caused controversy with his recent comments that the United States can not win this World Cup.
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann said, “realistically, it is not possible.”
To the average American, who only watches soccer once every four years, this quote may have seemed outrageous. It’s almost un-American to attempt a monumental task while at the same time admitting that it’s impossible. The comparison to Klinsmann’s comments that I keep hearing is with the 1980 US men’s national ice hockey team.
“Herb Brooks didn’t tell the players that they couldn’t beat Russia before the ‘Miracle on Ice’, Klinsmann shouldn’t either.” This is a common idea that I’ve heard on TV and sports radio discussion of his comments. It’s definitely a relatable thought, but it’s an overwhelmingly ignorant one.
If the US team makes an amazing run to World Cup victory past Ghana, Portugal, Germany, and all the other great nations they would face in the knockout stages, it would be bigger than the ‘Miracle on Ice’. The World Cup is much harder to win than the Olympic Hockey tournament, especially when you’re an underdog like the USMNT. Only eight countries (Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Uruguay, France, England and Spain) have won the World Cup since it’s inception in 1930. I’d have you committed to an insane asylum if you think the American team is on the same level as Brazil, Spain, Argentina, and the other favorites to reach the final in Rio.
If anyone knows what it takes to win the World Cup, it’s Jürgen Klinsmann. He was Germany’s leading goalscorer the last time they won the Cup, 1990 in Italy. Klinsmann has also played for some of the top clubs in the world including Inter Milan, AS Monaco, Bayern Munich, and Tottenham Hotspur.
Jürgen is the perfect coach to lead the Americans in Brazil because he’s won at the highest level and because he isn’t American. Klinsmann has used his legendary status in Germany to secure German-American “dual-nationals” to play for the US instead of Germany. Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, and Julian Green play in Germany, were raised in Germany, and speak English as a second language, but they’re on the American squad heading to Brazil.
Fabian Johnson will be starting at outside-back in Brazil, and Timmy Chandler definitely has a shot to start at center-back. John Brooks and Julian Green are players for the future. Green is arguably the best prospect the US has ever had. Julian is only 19 years old but has already attracted scout’s attention with his play for Bayern Munich’s reserve team. Bayern is one of the most successful clubs in the world and one of their best young players plays for the USMNT, that makes me excited.
Even if Julian Green only sees limited action in Brazil, Jürgen Klinsmann has put together an American team that is probably the best they’ve ever had talent-wise. Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley is the star man, and is arguably the best player this country has ever produced. Bradley played for AS Roma, one of the top clubs in Italy, before his move back to MLS in January. His transfer value in Europe was hurt by the anti-American player stigma that still exists across the pond. But, there is no doubt in my mind that Bradley could be playing at an elite level for any Champions League caliber club in Europe. Since his return to North America Bradley has torn up MLS, while he continues to be the maestro the US needs coming forward from the midfield.
Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are the two defensive midfielders who will allow Bradley freedom to go forward and be the advanced playmaker the US needs him to be. In Brazil, Jones and Beckerman will need to be aggressive while maintaining their defensive shape. If they stray too far up the pitch, the US may face the daunting task of stopping a Cristiano Ronaldo or Mario Gotze counterattack.
It’s tough to predict what the American back-four will look like on Monday against Ghana. We could see any four-person combination of Johnson, Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, or DeMarcus Beasley. My personal prediction is Johnson, Cameron, Besler, and Beasley in front of Tim Howard. But no matter who starts, the USMNT will need their back-four to be strong against the many skilled forwards they will face in Group G. They’ll also need Howard to be at his best throughout the tournament. He’s more than capable of making big saves in big games, having just guided Everton to a 5th place finish in the English Premier League.
But when it’s all said and done the US team won’t get anywhere unless they can find the back of the net. Striker Jozy Altidore has had a hard time doing just that in 2014. Altidore scored two goals against Nigeria, ending his drought without a goal for club or country that dated back to December. Altidore struggled all season in the Premier League with Sunderland, but his goals against Nigeria will give him a much-needed confidence boost heading into the World Cup.
Supporting Altidore going forward will be Seattle’s Clint Dempsey and FC Nantes’ (France) Alejandro Bedoya. After a failed return on loan to Premier League relegation-fodder Fulham, Dempsey has returned to form emphatically for Seattle in MLS. He’s looked a lot more like the Dempsey who scored 23 goals for Fulham in England in 2011/2012. Dempsey will captain the squad in Brazil where he can hopefully produce the same moments of magic for the US that he has for Fulham, Tottenham, and Seattle.
Two players to watch coming off the bench are Mix Diskerud and Graham Zusi. The Norwegian-born Diskerud is accustomed to playing a super-sub role for the USMNT. Diskerud did wonderfully to assist Landon Donovan to cap off a 2-0 win against Mexico in September that clinched the American’s spot at the World Cup.
American confidence was at its peak after the US qualified for Brazil as the top team from their region, CONCACAF. That confidence took a substantial hit in December when the Americans were drawn in an incredibly tough Group G. The group was immediately labeled as a “Group of Death” and critics from around the world theorized that the US wouldn’t even make it out of their group, some said they didn’t even have a chance. Let me tell you otherwise.
The Americans don’t have a chance to advance if they can’t beat Ghana in their opening matchup in Natal, but I think they’ll beat Ghana. The Ghanaians rely on the attacking speed of forwards like Kevin Prince-Boateng and Andre Ayew. Since the last World Cup; Boateng has moved from AC Milan to Schalke in Germany, and his play has yet to return to the level it was while he was in Milan. Ayew will be a force to be reckoned with as he’s one of the speediest players in Europe, but I believe the American defense is up to the task. Fabian Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley have enough speed as outside-backs to keep up with both Ayew and Boateng, and both Johnson and Beasley have looked solid defensively for the US in recent matches.
The key for the Americans in the group stage is to stay disciplined defensively. The USMNT’s defensive midfielders will need to pick and choose when to go forward, being careful not to get caught up the pitch. The US can probably survive a few counter-attacks from Ghana, but they will get grilled if Portugal and Germany are allowed enough space to take on the American defense 1-on-1. If Cristiano Ronaldo can find space on the counter-attack, then the Americans will not be able to get a point against Portugal. Ronaldo is impossible to stop 1-on-1, it can’t be done.
If the Americans are disciplined defensively and make the most of their chances, I believe they will beat Ghana. Portugal will be much tougher, but a point against the Portuguese is possible if Ronaldo’s effect can be minimized. If all goes to plan the Americans could have 4 points by their final matchup against the Germans. Another point in that game would certainly see the Americans through to the next round, but realistically they will lose to the Germans and have to rely on goal differential to go through.
So to recap: the recipe for the Americans to advance is a win against Ghana, a tie against Portugal, and an avoidance of destruction against Germany. What an accomplishment it would be for American soccer if they succeed. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and that’s what the Americans will have to do. There’s no question that it will be tough, but don’t try to tell me that we don’t have a chance. This is the World Cup, this is FIFA, and crazier things have happened.