World Cup 2006 profile, Americans’ best chance for legitimacy is right now
Posted by ssbg on June 11, 2006
FIFA world ranking: No. 5.
How they qualified for Germany: Finished first in CONCACAF with a 7-1-2 record, with the same record as Mexico but with a better goal differential in head-to-head qualifiers.
Previous World Cups and finishes: Seven appearances (1930, '34, '50, '90, '94, '98, 2002). Quarterfinals in '02.
Manager: Bruce Arena, eighth year with team.
At just 24, Landon Donovan has already become the driving force of the U.S. team, a dangerous creator and finisher who proved his talent once again during a triumphant qualifying campaign. Still, questions remain about whether Donovan can take the next step at the international level, especially after his short and aborted stay at Germany's Bayer Leverkusen in early 2005 before returning to MLS. Will forsaking the challenge of European club soccer come back to burn LanDo during his return to Germany? It may not seem fair, but he'll be judged on how he performs during a limited time in June.
Age and health will be concerns for Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, BrianMcBride and John O'Brien. All four made big contributions during the Yanks' surprise run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, but they have also been racked by injuries since then, and Reyna, Pope and McBride are all north of 30 years old. If the World Cup really is "a young man's game," as Arena famously said four years ago, is he asking too much of his older players this time around?
Amazingly, goalkeeper Kasey Keller has never won a World Cup game despite his vast experience. Yet the most important player in the U.S. defense may be rising star Oguchi Onyewu, a 23-year-old monster who could be the Yanks' breakout player of the tournament. Onyewu's performance against towering Czech forward Jan Koller could have a big impact on the outcome of the U.S.' opening game. Also keep an eye on Arena's 23-year-old wingers: DaMarcus Beasley, playing in his second World Cup, and Clint Dempsey, a fearless and inventive dribbler.
What to watch for
Arena is the longest-tenured coach at the World Cup for a reason. He pushed all the right buttons in Japan/Korea '02, changing his lineups more than any other coach, and his instincts were impeccable. The U.S. may not have as much talent as its Group E foes, but it's safe to say that none of the other three teams (Italy, the Czechs and Ghana) will be better prepared than Arena's lads. Expect most of the U.S.' 23-man roster to see action in Germany.
The U.S. has certainly matured in its approach over the past four years. Road wins in Central America and the Caribbean became much more common during the final round of World Cup qualifying. Yet while the Americans have become a regional power, outclassing the teams they should beat, they have not taken down any world-class heavyweights (outside of Mexico) since upsetting Portugal in the opening game in' 02. Keep in mind, surviving one of the World Cup's two toughest groups will almost certainly require a W over either Italy or the Czech Republic, and the U.S.'s only victories on European soil in recent years have come against lesser-light Poland (on two occasions).
Whether they like it or not, Germany '06 will be one of the Yanks' few chances to validate their '02 quarterfinal run on the international stage. Not even the Americans believe they're really the world's fifth-best team (their current standing in the FIFA rankings), but proving they're among the planet's top 10 teams will require going toe to toe with the Czechs and Italians. One thing's for sure: We'll get to gauge how much the U.S. has improved since 1990, when Czechoslovakia and Italy beat the Yanks convincingly in World Cup group play.
Group: E (Italy, Ghana, Czech Republic).
Key match in group stage: June 12 vs. Czech Republic. Getting three points from Game 1 would be crucial to the U.S.' chances for advancement. Less than that and a victory over Italy in Game 2 would be imperative.
Oddsmakers' line: 96-1.