Well, the ticket on my bedstand says the United States are a 10 to 1 shot to win this World Cup.
That, of course, says a lot more about my idiot friend Ed, who bought the thing, than the U.S. chances. Ed, not a soccer fan (good gambler, though) was in Vegas and clearly got skinned on this one.
More legitimate odds are in the range of 60 to 100 to 1. But that's the betting line. Beyond that, how much can we read into last summer stunning Confederation's Cup run, where the U.S. smacked around Spain, that nation's first loss in something like a year at the time. Spain, after all, are the favorite to win this World Cup. We beat Spain. Ipso facto...
The answer, sadly, is we can't read too much into that tournament. The primary reason is that it's not this tournament.
But the barely in second place reason is that last summer, American striker Charlie Davies was a revelation. This summer, he's recovering from injury.
It's his absense that makes the U.S. difficult to handicap, in my opinion. Davies was not the best player on the U.S. during that tournament, but he was the most difficult to control.
His speed stretched defenses out of shape, which allowed young, talented but raw Jozy Altidore the space he needed to be effective.
His speed took pressure and attention away from Landon Donovan, and Donovan (who is our best player) is at his best when he's not the focus of attention, and drift until he finds seems in the game to exploit.
It offered a similar freedom to Clint Dempsey, who was probably our most valuable player in that tourney.
Behind them, the defense was very solid, an experienced group that galvanized around Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, or Gooch, who also spent most of this year injured, and has been less than convincing in warmup matches ( I mean, can he even jump right now?).
But, as noted, the U.S. doesn't have Davies this summer. So how do we approach this tournament, in order to have success.
So, where does that leave us?
Never read too much into warmup results, either ours or other teams. People are looking to fine tune, and results are sacrificed in exhchange for the chance to fidget, with formations, roles, working out combinations. In a real Cup match, teams will try to avoid the strengths of opponents. In a good matchup, a Cup team will chose those who mimic their Cup opponents, and try to work through their strengths as much as possible.
So, given that, what are our strengths? From the back.
The U.S. will be as good as anyone in goal. Tim Howard is class, Marcus Hahnemann is a step down but very solid. Brad Guzan is there to learn, I believe, but should disaster strike would be fine.
In front of them, the U.S. might have issues. Gooch looks slow and land-bound, and he's a very important defender for the U.S. Bocanegra is rightfully our captain, and plays as solidly as a captain should. He's a better central defender than left back, but he's also a better left back than any we have.
If Gooch is healthy, we pair him with Jay DeMerit, a good physical presence and I hope not a yellow/red card waiting to happen. With that pairing, Bocanegra plays wide left.
Without Gooch, though, can we afford to play DeMerit (again, a bit volatile) with the relatively inexperienced Clarence Goodson?
Against our first opponent, that could be a bad idea. Against Algeria and Slovenia, we could get away with that.
But that would mean we're starting Steven Cherundolo on the right and Jonathan Spector on the left, instead of pick one for the right, where both are better.
It's not a disaster of a defense, but it is not the U.S. defense at its best, and this is the World Cup. This is the sort of defense that gives up a cheap goal or three. With any luck, they gell quickly.
The one thing we've seen in the warmups is that they will need to.
While Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark sound like a good "empty bucket" tandem, they haven't been working out that way. They're leaving opposing attackers a lot of extra space in the middle, and that been creating much more pressure near our goal than is adviseable.
Benny Feilhaber and Jose Torres give the U.S. a lot more possession in the center of midfield. The coach, Bob Bradley, hasn't looked as if he intends to start this way, however. It's an understandable position, as they lack defensive bite.
They do create more going forward, however. It's a very tough call. If our central midfield is overrun when it has two holding mids, what happens when it has one, and an attacking mid?
Does the U.S. versus England instead drop from it's normal 4-4-2 into a 4-5-1, with Torres of Benny above the holders? And, what of Stuart Holden?
The wings will be our strongest part of the field, and the source of hope in this tourney, in Donovan and Dempsey. They can both create on the dribble, and Donovan is fast enough to cause problems. By floating in from a wide position, he tends to find empty spaces and can really confuse defenses. He will also never stop running. Dempsey has shown that he is a threat to score, and to score in unexpected fashion. U.S. fans should hope for a repeat of his wonder club goal for Fulham against Juventus, in which he smartly lobbed the keeper, finding the far-side top corner from 20 yards out.
Which brings us to the strikers. Altidore is the most complete, and will start if healthy. But who matches up well with him?
The inexperienced Robbie Findley seems to have been brought along as an "as close as the US can get to Davies" replacement. He's got the speed to twist defenses. He lacks Davies scoring ability, however, which ultimately means he's a lesser threat.
Both Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez look able to score, but neither looks like a good opening partner for Altidore. Gomex might, however, be the best late-game offensive threat this national team has ever known.
So, guessing, I'd think we start versus England with Altidore alone. If Gooch was fully healthy, I'd like our chances to pick up a tie and a point from this match. As he's not, we're going to need some lucky bounces.
But I think we advance from the first round games, beating both Slovenia and Algeria, having returned to a 4-4-2, with Findley's speed a problem for both teams, and with Gomez proving important late in at least one.
Advancing as a second placed team means a likely matchup with Germany. Germany isn't a bad matchup for the U.S. at this point. No mistake, they're still a much more talented team, but they seem a little unbalanced right now.
Which is why I could see the U.S. advancing to the quarterfinals of this cup.
The complete team:
G: Brad Guzan
G: Marcus Hahnemann
G: Tim Howard
D: Carlos Bocanegra
D: Jonathan Bornstein
D: Steven Cherundolo
D: Jay DeMerit
D: Clarence Goodson
D: Oguchi Onyewu
D: Jonathan Spector
M: DaMarcus Beasley
M: Michael Bradley
M: Ricardo Clark
M: Clint Dempsey
M: Maurice Edu
M: Benny Feilhaber
M: Stuart Holden
M: Jose Torres
F: Jozy Altidore
F: Edson Buddle
F: Landon Donovan
F: Robbie Findley
F: Herculez Gomez