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Jun 9, 2014

United States' World Cup predictions

Our panel analyses the decision and potential implications of leaving Landon Donovan off of the United States World Cup squad.

After four years of waiting, the time has come. Another World Cup is here, and our bloggers across all 32 competing countries have each predicted the fate that awaits their team. The country's Outlook gives a general view of its situation ahead of the tournament, while Pitfalls takes a look at any potential problems. Each blogger will also predict the top scorer and breakout star and suggest how far that nation can go.

OUTLOOK

The United States finished as the top qualifier in CONCACAF and accumulated their best record in a calendar year in 2013. Despite those achievements, they enter the tournament with a litany of questions. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's unorthodox approach and surprising decision to bring along several inexperienced players while leaving Landon Donovan at home heighten the pressure on the coach.

No one, not even Klinsmann, seems to know which formation best suits his team. After relying on a 4-2-3-1 throughout 2013, Klinsmann suddenly switched to a 4-4-2 featuring a diamond midfield just months before Brazil. Although the system gives the Americans more options going forward and puts star midfielder Michael Bradley higher up the field, it will also stress a back line whose players are untested together.

None of the Americans' three warm-up matches presented a team firing on all cylinders. If there's work to be done, Klinsmann is out of time.

PITFALLS

Without question, the biggest concern for the U.S. is the back line. Consistency has been nonexistent as Klinsmann juggles several possible combinations looking for the most effective unit. Based on the most recent evidence, Klinsmann is likely to start Geoff Cameron over Omar Gonzalez at one center-back position, pairing him with the man most consistently on the defensive line for the past year, Matt Besler. At fullback, Klinsmann made the surprising decision to install two-footed Fabian Johnson on the right while leaning on converted midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (or possibly right-footed Timmy Chandler) on the left.

Most crucial to U.S. success in Brazil will be this group's discipline and communication. There's only so much Tim Howard can do in goal to cover up for a set of defenders prone to mistakes and being caught out of position.

STAR SCORER

Almost by default, Clint Dempsey should be the top American scorer at this World Cup. The Seattle Sounders star is one of the most dangerous attacking players in the U.S. side, and any teammate who could challenge him is either recently out of form or untested at this level. And yet, there lurks Jozy Altidore, the American first choice to lead the line and a player suddenly heading to Brazil full of the confidence that so eluded him during a difficult Premier League season with Sunderland.

Call it a hunch, but if Altidore plays at a level close to what he showed against Nigeria in the United States' final send-off match, it will be he -- not Dempsey, the more obvious choice -- who will leave Brazil as the top American goal scorer. Klinsmann deployed Altidore as the lone striker in a very fluid 4-2-3-1, leaving open the question whether he will provide the 24-year-old with a strike partner in the World Cup.

It's worth noting that no American forward has scored in the World Cup since 2002 and that Dempsey's previous goals in the competition came while he played out of the midfield.

Graham Zusi's play out wide will be a key component of the U.S. attack.
Graham Zusi's play out wide will be a key component of the U.S. attack.

WILD CARD

While most of the focus for the U.S. will be on Dempsey and Bradley, no player is primed to surprise at the World Cup like Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi. Expected to play on the right side of midfield in whatever formation Klinsmann sets out, Zusi's ability to play quality crosses from wide positions makes him key to any attacking joy the Americans might find.

The 27-year-old is playing in his first World Cup, emerging as a consistent U.S. international only over the past two years. Klinsmann now trusts Zusi above almost any wide midfielder.

PREDICTION: Group stage exit

The U.S. have plenty of reason to be positive about the future, but this World Cup likely will end in a group-stage exit. The competition in Group G is stiff, and with so much doubt about the Americans' ability to defend, it's difficult to believe they can stop the likes of Portugal and Germany. So much of the tournament turns on the opening match against Ghana, the USMNT's two-time World Cup nemesis; get a result against the African nation, and there might be hope of pulling a surprise in the group. Lose to Ghana, and the chances of qualifying for the knockout rounds in a second consecutive tournament would drop dramatically.