The U.S. men’s national team has problems going into the World Cup.
The defence is unsettled, with a hole at left back and zero central defenders with World Cup experience.
The effectiveness of the midfield rests on Jermaine Jones, a polarising player with a reputation for picking up yellow cards and venturing upfield at inopportune times.
The team’s preferred striker, Jozy Altidore, hasn’t scored a goal on any level in 2014 and failed to bury a few scoring chances against Turkey in a pre-World Cup friendly.
It’s also a team in transition. Landon Donovan was unceremoniously dropped from the roster by Jurgen Klinsmann on the eve of the tournament. Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard are over-30 and could be playing their last World Cups in Brazil.
Combine all those questions with the strength of Group G — where the U.S. will play the team the knocked them out of two-straight World Cups (Ghana), the team with the best player in the world (Portugal), and the team that’s ranked No. 2 in the world (Germany) — and it could be a very short World Cup for the USMNT.
If the U.S. is going to survive the so-called Group of Death and enter the knockout stage, Michael Bradley is going to carry them there.
Bradley, a 26-year-old from California, is the team’s best player. He controls the game in the center of the field, rarely giving the ball away and serving as a release valve when other players come under pressure. In the new “diamond” midfield that Klinsmann debuted against Mexico in April, Bradley has played a more attacking role.
Against Turkey he unlocked the defence with a gorgeous chip, leading to a goal:
Bradley started playing in Europe when he was 19. He played in the Dutch, German, English, and Italian first divisions, most notably for Roma, before making a stunning move back to MLS to play for Toronto FC.
The move made financial sense — Toronto gave him the 2nd-biggest contract in MLS at $US6.5 million per year — and it allowed Bradley to be the focal point of a team.
But players are judged, fairly or not, by the strength of their club team. Coming back to MLS instead of trying to break his way into a Champions League team was a disappointment for many American fans who want to see national team players at the sport’s highest level.
Bradley played for his dad, ex-USMNT coach Bob Bradley, at the last World Cup. Under Klinsmann his affect on the national team has remained unquestioned.
In a World Cup where the U.S. will probably be forced to defend most of the time, Bradley’s defending and ability to relieve pressure will be important. When the U.S. does get out on the counterattack, Bradley’s late runs into the box could turn into goals, like this headed assist against Mexico:
There is a plausible best-case scenario for the U.S. in Brazil: They beat Ghana (the weakest Group G team) in the opening game, tie Portugal in the jungle on Manaus, and hope to sneak through on goal difference.
But it’s hard to imagine this or any scenario involving the U.S. getting into the knockout round becoming a reality without Bradley playing at his absolute peak.
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