As a worldwide sporting event, the FIFA World Cup’s importance is unparalleled. In 2010, it averaged 70 million more viewers than any single moment in this year’s Super Bowl XLVIII. According to Reuters, the 2014 World Cup is expected to be followed by over 100 million Americans – which is more than one-third of the U.S. population.
Brazil, this year’s host, is expected to see $3 billion added to its economy from those traveling to the massive South American country. For the players, the World Cup is often sentimentalized as the defining moment of their careers.
As the sport draws in new faces every day via factors like Major League Soccer, one question is repeatedly asked: just what is the World Cup?
To put it in layman’s terms, the World Cup is a tournament held once every four years to crown the best international soccer team in the world. Thirty-two teams enter the tournament following a lengthy qualification process, but only one can win the 13-pound gold trophy.
In December, this year’s 32 countries were split into eight groups of four teams. The groups guarantee each team three matches where victories mean three points, losses zero and ties one. The top two teams from each group then advance to the knockout round, which resembles the NCAA basketball tournament’s win-or-go-home format.
The U.S. men’s national soccer team saw itself placed into Group G, or as the national media likes to call it, the “Group of Death.” The opposition includes the world’s No. 2 and No. 4-ranked teams from Germany and Portugal, rounded out by the Americans’ World Cup foe Ghana, who has beaten the U.S. in the last two World Cup tournaments. If that doesn’t sound difficult enough, the U.S. will also be forced to travel close to 9,000 miles for their three matches, which is the farthest for any World Cup team.
However, the USMNT heads to Brazil on a positive note. The team won the Hexagonal (their qualification tournament), had their best year ever in 2013 and went undefeated in their three send-off series matches, including an impressive 2-1 outing against Nigeria on June 7.
The U.S. is also fielding perhaps their deepest squad in World Cup history. It features 11 players from MLS. The 23-man roster is both youthful and veteran, with midfielder Julian Green, 19, and goalkeeper Tim Howard, 35, as prime examples. However, manager Jürgen Klinsmann — who led a young Germany team to the semifinals in 2006 — will lead an American team that has never won the World Cup in its 80-plus year history.
The USMNT might not have consistent world-class talent at every position, but it may very well have the best trio of goalkeepers of any international team.
Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard will be the goalkeeper “between the sticks” in Brazil for the U.S. Howard is coming off his best year statistically for his English Premier League club and just recently played in his 100th international game for the Americans.
Behind Howard stands Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando. Guzan joined the EPL in 2008 and became an instant starter for Aston Villa, while Rimando recently captured his first MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2013 for Real Salt Lake.
This area provides a question mark. Four players will make up the U.S. backline, but who will they be? Johnson, Cameron, Besler, Beasley; Besley, Gonzalez, Besler, Chandler; or Johnson, Brooks, Besler, Besley? These are just three possible lineups amidst infinite possibilities.
The good news: the USMNT have options. Sporting KC’s Matt Besler has become the most consistent defensive player, while Fabian Johnson has recently surged into starting contention.
Whoever starts for the Americans will have not one huge test, but three. Ghana is speedy, Portugal has the world’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo and Germany’s bench can frustrate any defense.
Fewer question marks in personnel, but more in tactics. It appears that Klinsmann will have the team playing a 4-4-2 diamond formation in Brazil where the midfielders are lined up to look like a diamond.
The leader playing up top in this formation will be Michael Bradley. He is a player who can run box to box and set up his teammates anywhere on the pitch. He will be responsible for the success of the attack. The two outside players in the diamond could feature several faces including Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya and Brad Davis.
Who will anchor the diamond defensively is still up in the air. Both Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman have the capability to help the Americans, but both players give the team something different: Jones is a bruiser who can aide in the attack, while Beckerman generally plays it safe and helps the back four.
Klinsmann made a controversial decision to leave U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster. But even so, the USMNT has arguably its best lineup of forwards ever.
Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski are the USMNT’s “big four.” Altidore and Dempsey will be the two starters in the 4-4-2, while Johansson and Wondolowski will likely be Klinsmann’s second-half “super subs.”
The big idea (no surprise here): score goals.
USMNT 3, Ghana 1
USMNT 2, Portugal 1
USMNT 2, Germany 2
Round of 16: USMNT 1, Belgium 2