True Grit

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By Aaron Hampton

It wasn’t easy or pretty, but there was something so American about the way the United States qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup.  Michael Bradley talked in the lead up to the World Cup about wanting to be the that can suffer the most, and that in itself sums up the war of attrition the United States overcame in making it out of the group.

Take the loss of Jozy Altidore for example.  Losing your number one striker would be a major blow for any team, but more so for the United States and Klinsmann’s preference for running a 4-2-3-1 formation.  Now you can make what you want of Altidore’s form heading into the World Cup, but the fact remains no one on the roster can fill his shoes as the lone man upfront for the United States in that formation, with neither Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, nor Aron Johanasson as adept at playing with their backs to goal.  Yet, without their target man upfront the United States were still able to brave a lethal attacking threat in Ghana just long enough for John Brooks to etch his name into folklore with his brilliant header in the dying embers of that opening game.

Even more important than the three points taken from the win against Ghana was how the United States responded to dominating large portions of their match against Portugal, only to see Portugal salvage a draw behind a momentary defensive lapse and a picture-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo.  A win in that game would have sent the United States through to the knockout round with a game in hand against Germany, however it wasn’t meant to be and the United States faced Germany with their berth in the knockout round far from secure.

And while the United States came away on the short end of there match against Germany, there performance was gritty, determined, and everything needed in order to make it through to the next round.

That’s not to say there is no work that needs to be done to the squad by the time the knockout round begins.  Michael Bradley will definitely need to improve his form heading into the next round.  While the United States clawed its way out of the group stage without the best performances from Bradley, eventually during this tournament they will run into a point where they will need the steel reserve of Bradley to push them through.  His touch and decision making haven’t been what we are accustomed to seeing from Bradley, but with the group stage behind and essentially a new tournament starting with the knockout stage, it’s now or never for Bradley.

The health of Jozy Altidore will determine whether the United States’reverts back to a 4-2-3-1 or if Klinsmann continues to tinker away at the formation to find the perfect mix without the Sunderland striker.  The United States went to a 4-5-1 against Germany with Clint Dempsey upfront, and the results were mixed at best.  While Dempsey is serviceable at that role upfront, it’s clear he’s more effective linking play and making runs at goal in contrast to playing with his back to goal.

The back line of the United States has been a lingering question mark for the team since World Cup qualifying, and that’ll also be an interesting area to keep an eye on as the team moves forward.  While I believe both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have both right and left back cemented respectively, the center back position still poses a question for the United States.  Omar Gonzalez looked impressive against Germany, neutralizing a few German attacks with monster clearances, and it will be interesting to see if he slots in next to Matt Besler in the middle of that back four.

To say the United States has come a long way since their 2-1 loss to Honduras during World Cup qualifying would be an understatement.  That loss, arguably the lowest point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, brought with it questions about his leadership style, tactics, and overall suitability for the job handed to him after the firing of Bob Bradley.  Fast forward to the present with the United States advancing out of the “Group of Death”and to a knockout round showdown with either Belgium or Algeria, and it’s clear to see that not only was that loss an aberration, but that there’s a grit to this team we didn’t see before.  A decidedly American grit that will see them through to the knockout round.

Left Behind

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Landon Donovan Excluded From US World Cup Squad

By Greg Hudson
 
When the United States Men’s National Team touches down in Rio next month for the 2014 World Cup, they’ll be without their all-time leading goal-scorer Landon Donovan.
 
Donovan, 32, has scored 57 goals in 156 games for the USMNT in 14 years since his promotion to the team as just an 18-year-old. His five World Cup goals tally more than Leonel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Robin van Persie combined.
 
Yet on Thursday, when USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann named his 23-man roster for Brazil, Donovan and several other veteran players had been scratched and replaced with youngsters who have yet to prove their mettle in international competition, to the shock of fans across the country.
 
But while shocking, Klinsmann’s decision isn’t entirely unheard of: in fact, it’s more common than one would think. Major countries, including those favored to reach the semi-finals or even win the World Cup this summer, have made significant strides to add youth and energy to their sides.
 
England, looking to win the World Cup for the first time since 1966, have named eight players under age 24 to their 23-man roster, including 18-year-old Luke Shaw and 19-year-old Raheem Sterling.
 
The ever-menacing German team has 11 players age 24 or younger in its side, and has excluded from its ranks the likes of Mario Gomez and Piotr Trochowski in order to make way for a younger generation of players like Marco Reus and Mario Gotze.
 
Finally, let’s look at host country Brazil. 2010 captain Lucio, and standout midfielder Lucas are both missing from this year’s team sheet, as are veteran strikers Robinho and Luis Fabiano whose sensational careers are still very much in action.
 
The trend in the “youth-enization” of teams expands beyond international competition, with clubs like Liverpool in England, Atletico Madrid in Spain, and Bayern Munich in Germany gaining high esteem for utilizing younger players to great effect. So is Klinsmann’s decision understandable.
 
To a certain extent, yes it is. Young players, while often lacking the maturity to handle the pressures of such a high-stress environment as a World Cup, bring energy, creativity, and a certain level of fearlessness that comes with inexperience, and a USMNT that has often struggled of late to find ways to score in games that matter could really use that injection of pace and confidence.
 
But at a World Cup, each team needs a born leader. The USMNT has that in goalkeeper Tim Howard, but had it in Landon Donovan as well, and perhaps in a more meaningful way. It was Donovan’s stoppage time goal against Algeria that put the U.S. into the knockout stages of the World Cup in 2010, and his experience and leadership could prove to be just a valuable as the youth and energy he’s been left behind to accommodate.
 
The team’s performance in Brazil this summer, and how the decision to leave Landon Donovan behind effects that performance, could make or break Jurgen Klinsmann’s career as the USMNT manager.
 
But more importantly, it’s a sign that in world football, there’s truly no glory without gutsy desicions. Will this one pay off? The world will watch and see.