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The Casual Fan’s Guide to the U.S. Men’s National Team

Only very, very minor Auburn content in this post. But I thought it might be a useful public service anyway.

So: you’re a sports fan. You’ve never paid that much attention to soccer, but you’ve never had anything against it. You caught parts of the 2006 World Cup and generally enjoyed it, then tuned in to the U.S.-Brazil Confederations Cup final last summer and found yourself kind of riveted as the Americans tried to hang on against the Brazilians. Now the U.S.’s match against England is a week away and you’re … looking forward to it? Yeah, looking forward to it.

The only problem: you feel like you don’t know enough about the team you’re supporting. They’re wearing the stars-and-stripes and they’re enjoyably Cinderellaish and that’s all you need to root like hell for them … but you’re used to knowing the teams you root for, and while ESPN profiles and team capsules are nice, they don’t help with context, entry-level strategy, fan expectations, etc. You couldn’t have a conversation about them.

I’m here to help. Or try to, anyway. I’ve been following the national side since ’94, and this post is what I’d tell every fan, diehard or causal, third-generation or brand new, that they ought to know about the team … a kind of Yanks for Dummies, if you will. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful.

WHAT THE TEAM IS CALLED: The full, official name is the United States Men’s National Team. (No “soccer” involved; it’s redundant.) As that’s a mouthful, you’ll usually want to shorten it to “the national team” or–if you’re writing about them–the USMNT.

Like virtually every national team in the world, the USMNT also have a nickname–they’re the Yanks*. Occasionally you’ll come across other cutesy nickname suggestions, but that’s the only one that counts, unless you’re on the Internet …  in which case the “Nats” is also acceptable. (And even encouraged.)

A BRIEF LESSON IN ESSENTIAL HISTORY: The first thing to know is that USMNT history is divided neatly into two eras, one the de facto “modern” era and one the era predating this:

That’s what Yank fans refer to as the “Shot Heard Round the World,” the goal from Paul Caligiuri that qualified the U.S. for the 1990 World Cup. Before that goal, the U.S. hadn’t qualified for a World Cup in 40 years; since then, they’ve never failed to qualify. It’s a B.C./A.D. kind of thing.

There are two major events in the pre-modern era: 1. the U.S.’s third-place finish at the inaugural 1930 World Cup; the U.S. won only two matches (of two) before losing in the semifinals of the 13-team tournament, but the team won both matches handily and featured legends (for a given, cultish definition of “legend”) like Billy Gonsalves and Bert Patenaude, the scorer of the first hat-trick in World Cup history 2. the miraculous 1-0 upset of England at the 1950 World Cup, still arguably the biggest shock in the tournament’s history. Names to know from that game include goalscorer Joe Gaetjens, a Haitian immigrant, and St. Louis-bred goalkeeper Frank Borghi.

The win over England ranks as the biggest win in U.S. soccer history, but the team’s two best overall World Cup performances since 1930 came in 1994 and 2002. Most fans would say that the biggest win of the modern era was one of the two at the 2002 Cup in Japan/South Korea–either the stunning 3-2 win over pre-tournament co-favorites Portugal in the group stage or the delicious 2-0 shutout of Mexico in the round of 16. The latter gave the U.S. its first quarterfinal berth since ’30. Playing at home in ’94, the U.S. drew Switzerland and upset Colombia–Sports Illustrated’s choice to lift the trophy–by a 2-1 score to advance to the second round, where they lost to eventual titlist Brazil**.

The other three recent Cup outings were disappointments. The 1990 side was thumped 5-1 in their opener by Czechoslovakia and went out without a point; in 2006, a dramatic draw with Italy in the Yanks’ second game wasn’t nearly enough to offset losses to the Czechs (again) and Ghana. But if those two teams were more “disappointing” than “total disaster” (the ’90 bunch was barely more than a college all-star team, and ’06 featured both a tough group and the Italy draw), 1998 was not, and represents the low point of the modern era–a team with vastly more on-paper talent than ’94 came back from France with three losses and (thanks to goal differential) a 32nd-place, dead-last finish. Coach Steve Sampson (fired immediately, of course) remains the most hated coach in USMNT history.

WHERE THE TEAM STANDS NOW: There’s little doubt that the current squad has the potential to be much, much better than the 2006 edition, and even equal the standard of 2002. The two major pieces of evidence:

1. The sterling run in last summer’s Confederations Cup, featuring a 3-0 blitzing of a solid Egypt squad, a 2-0 defeat of European champions Spain–their only defeat in almost 50 matches now–and a 2-0 first-half lead over Brazil. Those five halves represented the best soccer the USMNT has played since 2002, bar none.

2. First place in a rugged final CONCACAF (i.e. North America) World Cup qualification group, the first time in four tries at this format the U.S. has won CONCACAF qualification outright.

Those aren’t run-of-the-mill results for the Yanks. Frankly, even this week’s friendly (i.e. exhibition) results aren’t run-of-the-mill: 2-1 wins over a World Cup-quality side like Turkey and 3-1 wins over an actual World Cup side like Australia hardly happen all the time. (In 2006, the U.S. beat terrible Venezuela and Latvia teams in their final two Cup warmups by the same collective margin.) So the wins have been there of late.

And if the team that collected all those 2009 wins was still perfectly intact, we’d be dreaming of a bunch more. But it’s not. As you may have heard, promising forward Charlie Davies was critically injured in a fatal car crash last fall. Towering central defender Oguchi Onyewu tore his patellar tendon in the final qualifier and has yet to play more than 45 awkward-looking minutes at a stretch since. Right back Jonathan Spector had a poor season for his English club team and appears to have lost his job to veteran Steve Cherundolo. Midfielder Ricardo Clark hurt his calf this February and has yet to reclaim his form from last summer.

So there’s something of a lid on the optimism, especially for a team this thin, and double-especially on the defensive end. There’s just no real replacement for Onyewu, which is a major reason why the games against both Turkey and Australia have seen so many harrowing escapes despite just the single goals allowed to each.

But there’s a lid on the pessimism, too, since this is as dangerous offensively as the U.S. has been in years … maybe ever. Even with the forward situation unsettled, the trio of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Michael Bradley–all healthy, all in the prime of their careers–form the most dynamic attacking midfield in U.S. history, hands down. If the forwards can just finish off the chances those three create, the U.S. will score enough goals to get through the group stage. If the defense can hold, the Yanks might do more than that; like Auburn under Tuberville, the U.S. has made a habit of playing outstanding soccer as an underdog but spitting the bit as a favorite.

All in all, the Yanks should be ready to take a step forward from 2006, but there’s too much uncertainty to say they will.

THE EXPECTATIONS: World Cup teams fall into four categories in terms of their expectations. There’s those that are trophy or bust (Brazil, Spain, etc.), those that definitely want to do more than just get out of their group (Netherlands, England, etc.), those that will be happy as long as they get out of the group stage (Cameroon, Slovakia, etc.), and those that just don’t want to be embarrassed as the worst team in the competition (Honduras, New Zealand, etc.). The U.S. is firmly in the third group. If they can finish in the group’s top two and advance to the Round of 16, they might not be thrilled with elimination there, but they’ll almost certainly be satisfied on the Cup as a whole.***

Why? The specific reason the U.S. won’t expect more than a Round of 16 appearance is because it would more than likely come against Germany, a team that would hardly qualify as unbeatable in their current state but would nonetheless be a decided favorite against a second-tier soccer nation like the U.S. But more broadly speaking, it would be progress from four years ago.

Flipping it around, the same principle applies to why failing to advance would be such a disappointment; it would indicate that there hasn’t been any improvement, that the same stagnation that doomed the team in 2006 is still in place. Making it even worse would be the specifics of the opponents. England are an excellent side but aren’t in the very upper echelon with tourney favorites like Spain or Brazil or even, in terms of recent tournament success, Italy or France; Algeria are universally recognized as the weakest of the African qualifers and, on paper, one of the four or five weakest teams in the tournament; and while Slovenia automatically earns a certain amount of credit as a European qualifier, only Greece will go to South Africa from Europe with less general respect (and maybe not even the Greeks). This is the best draw the USMNT has received out of the five since Caligiuiri’s goal by a mile, arguably even the best possible draw for the U.S. out of all possible draws.

So if the U.S. can’t advance out of this group … what group can they advance from? Which is why they must advance.

THE FORMATION: The U.S. will play a 4-4-2: four defenders, four midfielders, two forwards. The “flat back four” in the U.S. defense play like a standard flat back four: the outside backs’ duties are to track opposing wing players, make supporting offensive runs down the wings to help the midfield, and supply crosses; the two central defenders defend.

The U.S. midfield’s a little different, though. Though all four players both defend and attack at times, typically a four-man midfield will have one player designated the defensive midfielder, one the offensive midfielder, with the other two players each assigned to a given wing. (England will play this way, for instance. Frank Lampard is the offensive mid, Michael Carrick**** the defensive mid, and Steven Gerrard and Aaron Lennon the wings. UPDATE: this is inaccurate. See footnote.) This is sometimes called a “diamond” formation. But the U.S. plays in a “box” — two defensive midfielders who both break up opposing attacks in the center of the field and only step wide when necessary, and two offensive midfielders who spend some time on the flanks but also regularly step into the middle to control the attack from there. The upside to this approach is a much stronger presence in the center of the field and greater flexibility and unpredictability going forward; the downside is increased pressure on the two outside backs and occasional confusion about who needs to be where. (More specifically, the upside is that it’s the approach that seems to work best for Bradley, Donovan, and Dempsey.)

In the past, the U.S. has generally played with one taller forward capable of winning long passes in the air and holding possession against physical challenges, and one smaller, speedier forward whose job is to run into space (and, you know, score). But since this U.S. roster doesn’t really have one of the header-winning possession-types, coach Bob Bradley seems more likely just to pick the two forwards he likes. (Note: despite what you might hear or read, Jozy Altidore is not one of these header-winning possession-types. Just because he’s big and occasionally tries to play with his back to goal doesn’t mean that’s what he’s good at.)

THE TEAM: Six players are locks to start every match. Starting in the back, there’s goalkeeper Tim Howard, big and supremely athletic, one of the better ‘keepers in the tournament. Still, he hasn’t put together a stand-on-his-head type of match for the Nats as of late. Captain Carlos Bocanegra will play left back; in size, speed, and foot skills he’s more suited to play in the center, but there’s simply no one else who can play on the left. (To be fair, Bocanegra has looked more and more comfortable in that position for the Nats the more time he’s gotten in it.) Central defender Jay Demerit has major problems playing the ball out of the back, but he’s good in the air, physical, and far better than anyone the U.S. might replace him with.

In the midfield, Michael Bradley is the U.S.’s best two-way player, both a confident defender and plenty capable attacker. Clint Dempsey could stand to increase his defensive work rate when playing in the midfield, but has a tremendous strike rate for the Nats and is the most likely U.S. player to pull a goal out of thin air. (Check this, please.) Then there’s Landon Donovan, who’s only the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer and best all-around attacking player ever.

As for the other five slots, we’ll start at right back, where Steve Cherundolo looks likely to get the call ahead of Jonathan Spector. Spector’s got the higher ceiling talent-wise and is a more physical presence than the older, smaller Cherundolo–the job looked like Spector’s for the next decade last summer–but Spector’s weak season and ‘Dolo’s solid outings vs. Turkey and Australia have tilted the edge towards the veteran. Oguchi Onyewu would be a no-brainer at central defense if he was healthy, but since he’s not, the call could (and likely will) go to Clarence Goodson. Goodson plays his club soccer in Norway and has so few caps (i.e. appearances for the national team) it’s hard to say what he’s good at and isn’t, whether he’s capable or isn’t. We’ll see.

It’s highly likely that Ricardo Clark rounds out the midfield, at the very least against England–his job is simply be to disrupt the opposition attack at every opportunity, and it’s one Clark has shown himself capable of doing, though his touch and passing vision are sometimes lacking. If Bradley wants more of a possession game he’ll go with the steady, heady Jose Torres, who doesn’t have nearly Clark’s bite in the tackle but is much better on the ball. Maurice Edu is another solid option, one somewhere between Clark and Torres on the defense/possession scale, and the one the majority of U.S. fans would probably pick themselves. Between these three and Michael Bradley, defensive midfielder is the deepest position on the roster.

Bradley may choose to move Dempsey to forward if he decides he’s better used up front. If so, he’ll have three options to replace him in midfield: Stuart Holden, an extremely promising true right winger who might be the best crosser on the team; Damarcus Beasley, the speedy left-footed veteran of ’02 and ’06; or Benny Feilhaber, a Brazilian-born attacker with a penchant for making one or two brilliant plays and then disappearing for 30 minutes. It’s unlikely any of these three will start, but Bradley’s m.o. last summer (and against Australia) was to sub a new midfielder on for a forward and let Dempsey move to striker.

Speaking of the forwards, if Jozy Altidore is healthy, he’s a lock to start. Burly but quick, the 20-year-old Altidore’s the only forward on the roster who’s proven he can score at this level. If his recent ankle sprain is bothering him, though, your likely starters will be Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley. Buddle is a longtime MLS veteran who’s always had a nice combination of height, touch, and speed, but had been a case of wasted potential until this year, when he caught fire for the L.A. Galaxy. Findley’s a burner who had a solid 2009 MLS season but was totally off the U.S. radar until this spring; virtually no one expected him to make the roster, much less start. But he’s shown flashes in the recent friendlies and Bradley clearly enjoys having some pure speed at the position. Hercules Gomez won’t start, but with his curious knack for coming off the bench and popping up in front of goal for easy scores, he could be the key offensive substitute for the U.S.

That leaves just three more players, the only one of which who’s likely to see the field is backup left back Jonathan Bornstein. Bornstein has been an absolute travesty in recent U.S matches and will give up goals given enough time on the field; with any luck Bocanegra will be ready to play the full 90 minutes or Bradley will simply replace him with Spector instead. Second- and third-string goalkeepers Marcus Hahnemann and Brad Guzan are capable enough (Hahnemann, a longtime veteran in the English Premier League, in particular) but neither will see the field unless Howard is injured.

Your likely starting lineup against England, in one fan’s opinion*****: GK Howard, RB Cherundolo, CB Goodson, CB Demerit, LB Bocanegra, DM Clark, DM Bradley, RM Donovan, LM Dempsey, F Altidore, F Findley. Subs: Holden, Gomez, Spector.

WHO WE HATE: Because it’s no fun being a fan if you don’t:

Mexico. Not the country, obviously. But its infuriating punk-ass soccer team and the segment of its fanbase that boos our anthem and enjoys throwing liquids of all kinds at our players? Hoo boy, yes. Yes. Yes.

Giuseppe Rossi. The New Jersey-born, New Jersey-bred striker who decided the USMNT wasn’t a proper dignified venue for his special talents and chose to play sit at home for Italy. Read more here.

Steve Sampson. Explained already.

Whoever’s currently ruining everything at left back. That’s the position the U.S. has had the most difficulty filling over the years, home to such notable mistake factories as Jeff Agoos, David Regis, and now Bornstein.

Eurosnobs. Though most U.S. fans don’t have a quarrel with European teams themselves, the provincial dismissiveness and elitism of many of their fans qualifies them as Grade A hate material. Anyone who ever tells you “it’s called football, not soccer” is immediately eligible for a punch to the throat.

WHO WE LOVE: The heroes:

Brian McBride. Tough as diamond nails, the scorer of several of the most important U.S. goals of the past 20 years, and a class guy top-to-bottom off the field, McBride is the one guy I’d point to as the embodiment of the USMNT. No one’s done it better. He became such a beloved figure at his English club, Fulham, they named the stadium bar after him.

Gaetjens, Borghi, and the rest of the 1950 squad. The reason the current uniforms have a sash is because the 1950 team’s uniforms had a sash.

Paul Caligiuri. Obvious reasons.

Landon Donovan? Donovan’s taken some stick over the years for never making it big in Europe and preferring the comfy confines of MLS, but between his years of steady service, heroic effort in 2002, and now unquestioned role as the team’s leader and rallying point (why is Bocanegra the captain? Search me), he’s become the most popular player on the current squad. (By a wide margin, I’d argue, thanks in no small part to the obvious particular pleasure he takes in destroying Mexico.) A second straight World Cup pratfall would take some of the shine off, though.

WHAT TO READ: There’s a ton out there, but one fan’s essentials: 1. SI’s Grant Wahl, probably the most respected and recognized writer on the Nats beat; stories here, blog here 2. SoccerByIves, the most accessible straight news blog for U.S. soccer (the Washington Post’s Steve Goff is also worthwhile) 3. Dan Loney, U.S soccer’s answer to Orson Swindle; his blog is here 4. the Offside Rules, U.S. Soccer’s answer to, I dunno, Deadspin or something, is here.

AND LASTLY, THREE CLASSIC AMERICAN GOALS: 1. Feilhaber, to beat Mexico and win the Gold Cup, 2007:

2. Brian McBride, vs. Portugal, 2002 World Cup:

3. Eric Wynalda vs. Switzerland, 1994 World Cup, best free kick ever taken in a U.S. shirt:

*Not “Yankees,” Southerners, breathe easy. It’s a Revolutionary War thing.

**It’s worth pointing out that a lot of U.S. diehards look upon the ’94 squad more with respect rather than an overabundance of admiration or fondness. Under pragmatic coach Bora Milutinovic, the Yanks defended in numbers and rarely showed much tooth in attack, scoring just one goal in their four games from the run of play. (Two of their three goals came from Wynalda’s free kick and the infamous Colombia own-goal that led to Andres Escobar’s murder.) Even playing with 11 men against Brazil’s 10 for the entire second half of their second-round match, the U.S. never even really threatened the eventual champions. Though advancing to the second round with so little top-notch talent remains an outstanding accomplishment and a big step forward for the program, it wasn’t until the team’s run to the semifinals of the 1995 Copa America, the South American continental championships (with a 3-0 whipping or Argentina along the way!), that the U.S. really looked like a team ready to start challenging the world’s elite. Many U.S. fans will tell you that ’95 side, featuring players like John Harkes, Thomas Dooley, Tab Ramos and Alexi Lalas all playing at their absolute prime, remains the best team the U.S. has ever put on the field–even better than the 2002 squad.

***Almost. If the U.S. looks like garbage against England, scrapes through the group on one win and goal differential or in some otherwise uninspiring fashion, then bows out meekly to Germany or Serbia in the Round of 16 (or at all to Ghana or Australia), there’s going to be some grumbling.

****Probably. Gareth Barry will play here if he’s healthy. If you care. UPDATE: Barry’s not, but rather than just replacing him with Carrick, England are expected to move Gerrard into the defensive midfield and start James Milner on the wing. This is probably a good move from the U.S. viewpoint, since Gerrard’s far from a natural d-mid and he and Lampard have a bad habit of getting in each other’s way when they’re both in the center of the field.

*****If it’s me, I start Buddle in Findley’s place and Edu in Clark’s.

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