2010 World Cup Marks Rebirth of American Soccer
By Erik Schulwolf '10, Senior Writer
With the American men’s hockey team’s scintillating run to the Olympic gold medal game having ended on a silky wrist shot from the Great Frozen North’s wunderkind Sidney Crosby, sports fans who like their athletics best with a heaping helping of nationalism have to wait until June for their next fix — but what a fix it will be. As anybody who doesn’t live under a rock knows, this summer will feature the greatest sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup. 2010’s addition of the tournament will be held in South Africa, which will mark the first time the World Cup has been played on African soil. With three months left until the tournament, construction should begin on the stadiums any week now. (Editor’s Note: Erik, you can’t say stuff like that or you sound like an arrogant neo-colonialist pig.) Er, what I meant to say was that all preparations have been completed and the spectacle promises to dwarf even the spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympics. Anyhow, this will be the first of a couple of World Cup-related articles and will deal with Team USA’s prospects in the tournament.

Since the start of the qualifying campaign, the United States has been in somewhat erratic form. After starting out on a strong note with home wins over Mexico and Honduras, the Americans fell back into the danger zone, losing to the Mexicans and the Costa Ricans. Only a wild 3-2 win against Honduras assured them of a place in the World Cup with one game to spare. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, the Americans played horrendously in their first two games before beating Egypt 3-0 to advance to the semifinals on goals scored. In the semis, the USA then shocked then-top ranked Spain 2-0, and led Brazil 2-0 at halftime before losing 3-2 in regulation. Compound this record with a couple of mystifying friendly match defeats at the hands of third-tier European squads like Denmark and Slovakia, and Team USA has been anything but a model of consistency. How the Americans fare in the three preliminary matches will depend on which teams in the group get hot at the right time.

It’s fair to say, however, that the Americans have finally received karmic justice for the brutal hand that was dealt to them last time, when their group contained eventual champion Italy, top African nation Ghana, and highly-rated Czech Republic that underachieved against every team but the U.S. The powerhouse in Group C this year is England, whom the USA will play in a dream matchup on June 12. England qualified for the tournament in style, but World Cup success has been hard to come by for the Three Lions. Great English players who work wonders in club play have a long history of being dreadful in the national uniform (I’m looking at you, Frank Lampard!). Nagging questions for England include whom to play up front with Wayne Rooney (or whether to play with a lone striker), as well as which goalkeeper is least likely to commit the blunder that sends England packing. The United States is far behind England in terms of pure skill, but if they stay compact and use their speed on the wings when counterattacking, they could steal a point — or perhaps even all three. Beyond the Three Lions, the group contains two minnows of the draw, Algeria and Slovenia. Algeria, ranked 32nd in the world, may be best known for nearly provoking a border war with Egypt by beating them in a winner-take-all qualifying match. Their ability to overcome African teams that are stronger on paper (they shocked favorites Ivory Coast in the African Nations’ Cup) should indicate that the Americans should not take them lightly. Slovenia is, in all probability, the worst team in the group. While they qualified by shocking Russia in a playoff, they advanced out of a truly woeful qualifying group (Slovakia won it). Slovenia has few players in top leagues, and while they have a relatively prolific goal scorer in Milivoje Novakovic, it’s doubtful that he can carry his team into the elimination rounds. If the United States can’t beat the Slovenes, manager Bob Bradley should be fired.

Turning to the team itself, the squad that the United States sent to the Confederations Cup last summer has the ability to compete with the “big boys” of international football on a good day, and to take care of business against sides like Slovenia and Algeria. In Tim Howard, the Americans have a marquee goalie — certainly better than anyone the English can put between the posts. Oguchi Onyewu has developed into a dominating center-back, while Jay DeMerit is a solid partner for him in central defense. In the midfield, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey give Team USA speed and pace up the wings, while strikers Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore were explosive as a speed-strength combination up front in 2009. While an important failing of this team is the lack of a canny distributor, it is injuries that will be the key to the team’s fortunes. Currently, Team USA is hurting, with five players recuperating from various ailments. Four should all be back a couple of months before the tournament, although their ability to get match fit by the group stages remains open to question.

So, how will they do? If most of their players get healthy, they should advance to the second round on six points, beating Algeria and Slovenia but losing to England. If they’re all match fit and England implodes, they could certainly win the group. Assuming they make the second round, they will in all probability face one of Germany or Ghana. Both are high quality sides, but on a good day, the Americans could beat them and equal their modern era top finish by making the quarterfinals. However, it’s equally possible that they suffer a patented American World Cup meltdown — perhaps aided by injury — and fail to advance, which would in all probability get Bradley canned. Tune back in during April for my full predictions.

Issue 18, Submitted 2010-03-10 05:11:24