If we're being pragmatic, just for a second, we have to admit that if one started at the very first World Cup in 1930 and moved forward through history until today, right now, one could only conclude that the United States men's national team has been a complete, unmitigated joke.
Soccer, more than any other sport, is an empire business, and international soccer is a constant, cold war between nations that is only broken up when teams meet on FIFA-sanctioned battlefields every four years. It's here that empires are won, when teams scrap and fight to the top of the heap and hang on for dear life until bigger, stronger, and better teams come along, supplant them, and build on their foundations.
This is why there is weight when one mentions Brazil, or the Netherlands, or Spain, or Germany, or Argentina. These are teams that at one point or another over the last eight decades crested the pile and held on, and in doing so, changed the sport altogether. These are nations that at one time or another experienced uninterrupted periods of success, nations that became dynasties in the world's most-loved sport.
The United States' history in soccer, however, is a sea of black. There are rare, bright moments that light the beginnings of a path in the semifinal finish in the 1930 World Cup, and the 1950 World Cup victory over powerhouse England. And then for 44 years, nothingness, until the USA hosted the 1994 World Cup and properly launched soccer in this country, and then inexplicably marched all the way to the 2002 quarterfinal. Nine years later, legendary German player Jürgen Klinsmann was appointed the USMNT manager and immediately made his mark on American soccer, recruiting a contingent of army brats en route to assembling the greatest-ever American team, and this summer, mere weeks before the 2014 Brazil World Cup, cutting ties with the greatest-ever American outfield player.
With that decision, Klinsmann firmly inserted himself forever into American soccer lore, announcing to the world that the United States of America was ready to try its hand in the empire business, to start its slow, bloody trek to the top of the heap, and that that trek would start... in 2018.
Even the most pragmatic of us would look at Klinsmann's decision and think, wut? Julian Green? DeAndre Yedlin? John Brooks? Though players like Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, and Clint Dempsey are anything but spring chickens, the USMNT are sending a few boys to Brazil who almost definitely won't play (let alone lead them to victory), but will instead sit, suntan, and learn.
And since we're being pragmatic, we can admit what Klinsmann himself did: "We cannot win the World Cup." We can even go past that, and admit that our boys are almost certainly not going to do anything at all. And that's through no fault of their own or, for that matter, Klinsmann's own, but because the USMNT were drawn this year into the Group of Death, and by God is it death-y.
The United States were drawn into Group G, along with superpowers Germany and Portugal and their personal executioners in the last two World Cups, Ghana. There is almost no chance the Americans win the group, and they seem more likely to finish dead last in the group than to finish second and qualify for the knockout rounds.
And so if the Americans are, as they appear, doomed from the start, the most pragmatic of us would probably cut bait early, start preparing for 2018 in June 2014 as opposed to July.
Still, the World Cup only comes around once every four years, and nothing bad could come out of fluking a top-two finish in the Group of Death and limping into the round of 16. So that all said, since we're making the trip anyway...
Let's bust some fucking heads.
Goalkeepers: Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin) DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
Midfielders: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenberg), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Aron Johansson (AZ Alkmaar), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
The Stars and Stripes
Michael Bradley, Center Midfielder
Landon Donovan's omission from the USMNT was almost as much about Bradley as it was about Donovan, inasmuch as it was the official passing of the torch from Donovan, once the Americans' best player, to Bradley, the best player on the team right now. But really, the torch was passed some time ago, and today, Bradley is not only the best player on the team, but head and shoulders everyone else.
It's not just that he's the closest thing the Americans have to a Yaya Touré or Steven Gerrard, was considered by English side Arsenal just this season, and is probably the only player on the USMNT that could make all 32 World Cup squads.
It's because he's a marauding, probably overly-serious destroyer who breaks up play better than any other American, and does shit like this better than any other American:
That is some FIFA shit.
That pass, on June 1 against Turkey, also led to Fabian Johnson's first USMNT goal. Johnson is one the top five players on the squad, but he's never scored before. Bradley's pass left the Johnson, however, with so much time that for a split second, our right back looked like goddamned Filippo Inzaghi.
(Props, by the way, to Johnson for the beautiful run.)
The very next match against Nigeria, Bradley lofted a ball perfectly into the suddenly, curiously confident Jozy Altidore, who had gone on what probably should have been a career-altering scoring drought before netting two on June 7.
For all his flaws—and at times, he has all of them—Jozy is and has always been and will always be a physical marvel, big and strong and fast and a handful one-on-one. But it was Bradley's pass that gifted Altidore the time and isolation to do what turned out to be some very wet work against the Nigerian defender.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that Michael Bradley is the Americans' only great field player, because he is great in the most clichéd possible way: he makes teammates around him better. Bradley will have to hold his own, alone at times, against a bunch of truly, truly horrifying midfielders in the group stage. He'll have to be that destroyer, he'll have to be a provider, and he'll probably have to say fuck it once or twice and score himself.
But dare we say, the boy is looking kinda ready?
Geoff Cameron, Defender
He should be on the field, right? Yes. He should be on the field.
Cameron, Stoke City's 6-foot-3 defender, is built like the Juggernaut and starts at right back for Stoke City, a middling Premier League team. He is very good, and after Altidore's extended siesta and Dempsey and Bradley's return to Major League Soccer, he's likely (definitely) the best American field player left in Europe. Nearly every week, he battles against players like Luis Suárez, Eden Hazard, and Mesut Özil. This is the standard that the Americans will have to face in the Group of Death. The guy needs to be on the field, somewhere in the backline.
Center back Matt Besler is solid, but Omar Gonzalez has been playing like absolute dog shit for the LA Galaxy of late, is nursing a knee injury, and is good for one monstrous mistake a match. Gonzalez is a huge, huge man, but so is Cameron, and Klinsmann probably needs to swap the Stoke man in and let Gonzalez chill in the shade awhile.
With earnest, makeshift left back DaMarcus Beasley a lock for a spot, the USMNT can't afford an error-prone center back. If the Americans are to make it through the group, they'll need to someone who can hope to stop Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo who, if healthy (he'll be healthy) has made his name being unstoppable, as well as whatever horrors Germany and Ghana trot out.
Cameron is the smart pick. The only question is if he can mesh with Besler quickly to form a solid partnership. If he can, the USMNT have a puncher's chance. If he can't, might as well sub in John Brooks.
Over the last two years under Jürgen Klinsmann and through World Cup qualifying, we watched, disbelieving, as the drab, soulless United States men's national team turned into something different, something more. They seemed to join the rest of the world, abandoning the ho-hum 4-4-2 for the 4-2-3-1, and switching from an almost purely counterattacking team to one that dominates play and looks to score. It all culminated in 2013 when the USMNT went on a 12-match win streak, qualified for this year's World Cup, and at times, looked vaguely unfuckwithable. And then they were drawn into the Group of Death.
In a tragic twist, the USMNT will likely only advance by reverting to a similar style we thought they'd left behind: defending, parrying, converting on set pieces, and, when their opponents get overstretched, striking on the counter.
Beyond that, how the USMNT lines up still seems very undecided. Going into the World Cup, Klinsmann appears to be still deciding whether to trot out his team in a 4-2-3-1, where they've thrived under him, or the 4-1-2-1-2. There are disadvantages to both.
In the 4-2-3-1, midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will both patrol the space front of the back four, with captain Clint Dempsey playing in the attacking midfielder role, just behind Jozy Altidore. Defensively, this is the best tactic, because there are more players in the midfield to contend with any of their three opponent's strong, three-man central midfielders, and wingers Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya will tuck in centrally a bit to provide more support for the outside backs.
The 4-2-3-1, though, is a problem for a couple reasons. Though they've been partnered together for a couple of years now, Bradley and Jones still struggle often to decide who should stay and who should go in the attack. Both are two-way players who like to get forward, and this could leave them open to counterattacks. Unfortunately, it only takes a cursory glance to see that Bradley is much, much better than Jones going forward, and should have sole ownership of this role. Alas.
With no Donovan, Dempsey playing off of Altidore, and Zusi and Bedoya playing defensively, the striker will often find himself on an island. He'll have to fight off centerbacks, hold up the ball, and wait for support. He can do this. Altidore will also have to carry more of the scoring load from open play. If his recent form's any indicator, he probably cannot. (Although, if anyone is going to thrive without Donovan, it's probably Altidore. He needs service to be effective, and Donovan is a more direct player from either wing. Both Bedoya and Zusi, as well as players like Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley, will look more to curl balls into the big striker.)
Altidore started 19 times for Sunderland in the Premier League, and made 12 appearances off the bench. In those 31 matches, he tallied one goal and one assist. He's clearly the anointed one, but before scoring two goals in the USMNT's final tune-up against Nigeria on Saturday, Altidore went 28 matches across all competitions without scoring.
And that's why we're talking about the 4-1-2-1-2, because it's more than likely that Altidore's going to need some help up top. Zusi and Bedoya on the wings would pinch in to form a narrow diamond, while the USMNT's outside backs work up the flank to provide width. Dempsey will push up to form more of a direct partnership with Altidore, and Bradley will assume the playmaking duties behind them.
This is good, because it more tightly separates and defines the Bradley and Jones dynamic. And it also puts Bradley closer to the goal, where he can link up with players or look to score himself.
But Bradley, who plays best as a box-to-box marauder, is not a pure number 10. While we're at it, Jones isn't a pure anchor. Zusi and Bedoya, for that matter, aren't central midfielders. Klinsmann would be playing literally everyone in his midfield out of position.
The three-man central midfields the Americans face will likely still be able to navigate the slop in the middle of the field before finding their wings on the flanks to go one-on-one against their outside backs. A 4-1-2-1-2 doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially against the lethal attack, and yet here we are.
What does seem to make a lot of sense, however, was the lineup the Americans fielded against Nigeria. Defensive midfielder Beckerman is a decidedly calm, safe player, and he sat in front of the back four next to Jones. Bradley was in an advanced role behind Altidore, and Zusi was dropped in favor of Dempsey on the wing, who cut in toward goal and tried to cause his customary havoc.
This felt... right, somehow. And if you'll allow me to spitball for a second, why stop there? After all, forward Aron Johansson had 26 goals this year playing for Dutch side AZ, and has scored 26 goals in all competitions this year. Maybe, perhaps if...
All times Eastern
June 16, 6 p.m.: Ghana vs. United States at Estádio das Dunas
June 22, 6 p.m.: United States vs. Portugal at Arena Amazonia
June 26, noon: United States vs. Germany at Arena Pernambuco
Top image by Sam Woolley; photos via Getty