Washington, May 28 (DPA) The United States have established themselves as top dogs in their CONCACAF zone, and coach Bob Bradley is eager to turn recent gains into success on the biggest stage this summer in South Africa.
A disappointing group stage exit from the World Cup in Germany four years ago is fresh in the mind, but fresher still is the Stars and Stripes surprise run to the final of the Confederations Cup, also in South Africa, last summer.
This summer marks the USs 10th World Cup appearance and their fifth in succession. Their best finish since a semi-final place at the inaugural finals in 1930 came in 2002 when they bested Portugal to graduate the group stage, and then edged old regional rivals Mexico before losing out to eventual finalists Germany in the last 16.
That accomplishment was arguably eclipsed last June when the North Americans overcame a slow start to reach the final a first for an American mens side in global competition at the World Cup warm-up.
Along the way they beat African champions Egypt and snapped a 35-game unbeaten run for Spain, the European champions and world number-ones, before being going down in the final against Brazil.
The runners-up finish has raised the teams confidence and international profile, but their inability to hold the 2-0 lead they gained before half-time against the Brazilians still haunts.
We cant be happy just to have reached the final,’ said LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan, the USAs top player and all-time leading scorer. If we want to get better we have to demand more of ourselves.’
While Donovan, who had a successful loan spell with English Premier League outfit Everton this season, will lead the line in his withdrawn attacking role, there are question marks next to a few of the influential Americans who shone so brightly at the Confederations Cup.
Hulking defender Oguchi Onyewu, signed by AC Milan after the event, is likely to miss out on the party with a knee injury sustained near the end of the USAs qualifying campaign, where they
finished top of the heap.
Charlie Davies, the attacking revelation of last years tournament, could be a shock inclusion in the side, as he is recovering from serious injuries sustained in a car wreck last October.
Clint Dempsey battled niggling injuries all season while his side Fulham performed well in both England and the UEFA Europa League, but the attacker is likely to be fit for the finals, as are qualifying top scorer Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley – the coachs son and Bundesliga standout – and Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Bradleys men open with European powerhouses England in a replay of one of the most memorable upsets in World Cup history when the USA beat their former colonisers in a group stage game at the 1950 finals in Brazil.
The other combatants in Group C are Algeria, surprise conquerors of Egypt in African qualifying, and Slovenia, making the USA a good bet to book one of the top two spots along with the English and move on to the knockout stages.
The coach: Originally hired as caretaker boss after the sacking of Bruce Arena in 2006, Bob Bradleys rampaging start forced the American FA to give up their hunt for a big-name foreign manager and settle with the former university and Major League Soccer coach.
The move proved inspired as the no-nonsense tactician led the Americans to first place in qualifying for South Africa 2010 and to silver at the 2009 Confederations Cup. Later in 2009, he was roundly criticised for naming an experimental line-up at the CONCACAF Gold Cup the regions biennial championship where his side were thrashed 5-0 by Mexico in the final in New York.
The star: Landon Donovan emerged on the scene at the 1999 U-17 World Cup in New Zealand, where he picked up the tournaments best player gong. Hes been the poster boy for American football since. In the following years, he had his struggles abroad with clubs in Germany, but he has maintained his position in the advanced attacking midfield role of the USA national team, where he combines brilliantly with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
Donovan, who had a positive loan spell with Everton this year but currently plies his trade with hometown side LA Galaxy, is the USAs all-time top scorer. And despite being criticised for going missing in the fires of big games, the six-time US Player of the Year is the architect of most meaningful US attacks.