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Soccer / Sports

US team doesn't count itself out of World Cup

It's tempting to think the United States' chances in the World Cup were dashed the moment the draw was made for the 32-team field.

Here's what awaits the U.S. in Brazil over the next few weeks once the tournament starts Thursday: Germany, No. 2 in the FIFA rankings; Portugal, ranked No. 4; and Ghana, No. 37 but the country that has knocked the Americans out of the past two World Cups.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

But the Americans are no longer pushovers, ranked No. 13 and conceding nothing as they enter the World Cup under coach Juergen Klinsmann, who starred in the tournament for Germany and coached his native country to the semifinals in the 2006 World Cup.

Former U.S. national team coach Bob Gansler, Wisconsin's own soccer Hall of Famer, has a theory about the way the squad will approach its work in South America.

"I never had a problem with being the underdog," Gansler said. "The underdog serves you well. If you think you're a dog, that's bad, because then you don't have the confidence.

"Our expectation is to get into the second round. You dream but then you work hard. Let's compete and play well enough; that's our basis."

A cautionary tale for the U.S. is the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when coach Bruce Arena's team went in brimming with confidence.

The U.S. was crushed by the Czech Republic, 3-0, in its opener; tied eventual champion Italy, 1-1; then lost an agonizing 2-1 decision to Ghana in Nuremberg in the third group game. Cup over.

"In '02 we did so well (reaching the quarterfinals in South Korea)," Gansler said. "What was our attitude for '06? It was a swaggering one. You need to be confident. Once you turn arrogant, you are self-defeating."

That shouldn't be a problem this time with the tough road the U.S. faces.

The run up to the Cup has included a strong dose of controversy, particularly with Klinsmann's decision to drop three-time World Cup participant and U.S. all-time leading goal scorer Landon Donovan from the squad.

It's clear the U.S. will be relying heavily on forward Clint Dempsey, named team captain; midfielder Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard as it navigates the group stage. The opening game is against Ghana in Natal on June 16, followed by Portugal in Manaus on June 22 and Germany in Recife on June 26.

Dempsey, 31, now playing for the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer, is a goal poacher who has a knack to be in the right place at the right time.

"Whether you start him wide and get him into the middle or you start him a little further back and get him forward, that's where he has his effect," Gansler said. "He is one of these guys; you have to fit the other pieces around him."

Bradley, the 28-year-old son of former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, made a much-publicized move from Roma in Serie A back to MLS and Toronto FC. He is a two-way player who has become more offense-minded.

Gansler said he remembers seeing Bradley at an Under-20 World Cup in Canada and realizing he would make an impact.

"At that time and since then at very significant clubs in Europe, he was solid," Gansler said. "He's got the work ethic. He's got an engine that won't stop. His contribution is absolutely essential."

Howard, 35, started all four matches in the 2010 World Cup. The New Jersey native is coming off a stellar season for Everton in the English Premier League as he posted 14 clean sheets for a fifth-place team.

"This team is young and naive in a positive way and guys are hungry for their first crack at a World Cup," Howard said of a squad that includes 25-year-old central defender Matt Besler, 27-year-old midfielder Graham Zusi and 27-year-old midfielder Alejandro Bedoya.

Julian Green, an 18-year-old who played for Bayern Munich's reserve team in the German fourth division, and DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old right back for Seattle, made the squad as subs.

"For me sometimes with experience you have baggage," Howard said. "This team doesn't seem to have that."

A key to the U.S. hopes could be 24-year-old forward Jozy Altidore, a national team veteran who has struggled in the past year at Sunderland in England.

If he can break out, it could be the boost the Americans need to make a splash in Brazil.

"He is really good holding up play," Dempsey said of his strike partner. "He makes something out of nothing.

"He is creating problems and getting good looks and has been a little unlucky. Sometimes you need a little luck on your side, and he is creating chances."

One positive development has been the increased influence of MLS players on the national team.

"If you constantly send all your best players some other place, there's no way you're building your national team," Gansler said. "Klinsmann has grown on the job.

"He was saying, 'You're good, get out of here (to European leagues).' Now they're coming back this way, some because they didn't have success but most because they did.

"They get top dollar, but they're also helping the league."

Finally, there is the Klinsmann factor.

He was not afraid to jettison Donovan and forward Eddie Johnson from the World Cup squad despite their major contributions to past successes.

Now he will be judged on lineup adjustments and tactics as the U.S. goes through what many consider the Group of Death. The U.S. will have to play differently against Ghana in the opener from the way it does against Portugal, featuring two-time world player of the year Ronaldo. And it may have another approach in the final group game against Germany, depending on its chances to advance.

"He had about 50 games of coaching when he came to the U.S.," Gansler said of Klinsmann. "Now he's had another 50.

"I'm not saying he needed to learn soccer, but he needed to know where I'm doing this, who am I teaching.

"You've got to know who you're talking to and find the right methodology. He made adjustments as he went along because he became more familiar and more confident with the guys he's working with."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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