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WORLD CUP

U.S. soccer team ready to make a mark on World Cup stage

The Americans will be underdogs when they open the tournament Saturday against England, but they're expected to advance to the elimination round.

June 08, 2010|By Grahame L. Jones

Reporting from Irene, South Africa -- The scene on Tuesday was a South African dairy farm an hour or so outside Johannesburg — about as incongruous a place as possible to be talking about the World Cup.

But Jay DeMerit was undeterred. Neither the distinct aroma of cows nor the fact that there were chickens milling about outside the media tent would sway the U.S. defender from his appointed remarks.

"I think, being Americans, we always have something to prove as far as far as soccer is concerned," he said.

"We understand who we are and we understand that there's still a long road. But we also can physically see people starting to care; we can see people starting to say, 'Yeah, these guys are actually pretty worthy.'

"We need to try to continue to have success as a program and as individuals, because in a media-driven place like America it's success that's going to continue us along that right road."

So what would constitute success for Coach Bob Bradley's team at World Cup 2010? A victory over England on Saturday? Advancing out of the first round after subsequent games against Slovenia and Algeria?

Or will nothing less than winning the 32-nation tournament earn the U.S. players respect worldwide and in their own country?

Landon Donovan, one of the team's three acknowledged stars, along with goalkeeper Tim Howard and midfielder Clint Dempsey, believes getting to the 16-team knockout stage should be the minimum goal.

It's an achievable one, even though the last time a U.S. squad ventured down this road, in Germany in 2006, getting out of the first round proved too steep a mountain.

Bradley took over after that three-games-and-out disappointment and has rebuilt the team from top to bottom. In the intervening four years, more American players have taken their talents abroad, either to clubs in Europe or Mexico.

That means Bradley has had a deeper and more experienced pool to draw from and he did so, selecting 19 foreign-based players for his roster.

Dempsey, increasingly the leader on the team, said results over the last year or two have demonstrated the players' capability.

"We stick to what we're good at," he said Tuesday in the media tent that is pitched on the farm across the road from the U.S. team's well-guarded and strictly off-limits base camp. "We stay back defensively and try to pick our moments when to go forward."

Being underdogs in the tournament, he said, "is not something you think about when you play. You just go out and try to get the job done. The most important thing is we have players who believe they can win any game they play in.

"When you have players that do that, that's the type of team I want to be playing for, and I think with that type of attitude you always have a chance against anybody you play."

The first game against England will be crucial. Defeat would not necessarily be fatal, as long as the score is kept down. A one-goal or even a two-goal loss can be overcome. A tie would be a good result. A victory would be shouted to the rooftops, echoing the famous 1-0 U.S. win over England 60 years ago, at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

Slovenia and Algeria are considered potential victories.

Confidence is riding high on the farm. The players believe that they can achieve something special in South Africa, ignoring, perhaps, the reality that is the U.S. all-time record of 6-16-3 in World Cup competition.

Recent success has fueled the optimism that this team could at least match the performance of then-coach Bruce Arena's team that reached the quarterfinals at Japan/Korea 2002.

"We have showed moments when we're playing on top of our game that we're a tough team to beat," Dempsey said.

"We have players who have played in big games, who play in big leagues, and who have had success. So you take that confidence with you and I think it helps you to keep moving forward and keep doing well."

Success or failure will be up to the players on the field, but it will be up to Bradley to decide who those players are. And there are questions he needs to weigh.

Does he play Oguchi Onyewu, obviously not yet back to full speed and full strength, in central defense or go with Clarence Goodson?

Does he keep team captain Carlos Bocanegra at left back or move him inside and leave Goodson on the bench?

Does he play two defensive midfielders or does he throw the more creative and more inventive Jose Torres or Benny Feilhaber into the mix?

Does he play Dempsey on the left and Donovan on the right, or the other way round?

Whom does he pair in the attack with Jozy Altidore, who has overcome a sprained ankle and on Tuesday returned to full training — Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley or perhaps even Dempsey?

On Friday night in Rustenburg, against an overconfident but underachieving England team, some answers will emerge. In the meantime, DeMerit's words are worth considering.

"We have a great mix of workers, a great team camaraderie that's very special, and then we also have individual stars who can make a difference," he said. "I think that can really take you a long way in a tournament like this."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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