Who would be on the plane to Brazil if soccer were America’s biggest sport?
Quantum Mechanics suggests that “there is a very large – perhaps infinite – number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.” It’s easy enough, then, to observe that in at least one of these universes the most popular sport in America isn’t football, baseball or basketball, but is instead what we Yanks call “soccer.” It stands to reason that in this universe, all of our best athletes dedicate themselves to “proper football,” as our English friends call it, and as a result the collection of elite athletes vying for a spot in the national side is a bit different than the one we have in our own universe.
What follows is an analysis of the likely first XI as the team prepares to board the plane for Brazil.
United States Men’s National Team manager and goal-scoring legend Sam Smith is faced with a daunting challenge – how to select a squad from arguably the greatest collection of football talent in team history? Still, as problems go, this is a good one to have.
We’ve been following the proceedings in the team’s pre-tournament camp at Stanford University closely, and while we don’t know for sure who Smith’s starting lineup will include when it takes the pitch on June 16 for its opening round match with Ghana, we believe we’ve seen enough to make some educated guesses.
There is less controversy here than elsewhere in the squad, thanks to the year-in/year-out dominance of Sporting Kansas City legend Calvin Johnson. The ageless wonder is big, athletic, fearless, experienced, and he can catch anything he can reach, which is most everything.
Johnson will be deputized by the equally battle-tested Tim Howard of Everton.
Another position of strength and depth for the USMNT.
Seattle Sounders mainstay Earl Thomas is the rock of the defense – physical, fast, and with a instinctive nose for the ball, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. Observers have marveled at the near anonymity with which Thomas plays the game – his positioning is so intuitive that he’s rarely caught out and he never seems to have to exert much energy. The game is effortless for him. Not so much for the men he marks.
He’ll be partnered by Andre Iguodala of the San Jose Earthquakes. Iggy is the rangier of the two – tall, flawless in the air, he can be counted on to mark the opponent’s most dangerous threats on set pieces.
The US is blessed with the best outside defensive tandem in football.
Look for Real Madrid star Andrew McCutchen to start on the right. Smith loves his man-marking capabilities, and when the US creates turnovers McCutchen’s pace makes him a lethal counter-attacking option bombing down the right side.
Another Sounders defender, Richard Sherman, will start on the left side. Sherman brings less to the attack than McCutchen, but he is quite simply the best marking defender on the planet. His presence effectively takes half the field out of play for opposing forwards and when the US faces Portugal in Manaus on the 22nd, you might anticipate Real talisman Cristiano Ronaldo spending most of the evening on the other side of the field. No offense is intended to McCutchen, who’s a committed, tenacious defender, but every minute spent trying to break Sherman down is a minute one might have more profitably spent reading transfer rumors in the Mail.
Here’s where Smith’s job begins to get complicated. While his choices in the back are relatively clear cut, in the center of the park he must choose among a wealth of options. We’re working on the assumption that the team will line up in a 4-4-2 (4-4-1-1 – more on this shortly).
While most of the US mids can be counted on to create havoc in the attack, it’s also true that at least one of the starters needs to be a defend-first type. Look for the New England Revolution’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense Dustin Pedroia to hold down this role. While not regarded as a supreme athlete like most of the others in this side, Petey is smart as a whip and has proven his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep opposing attackers off his back four. He’s kind of like the slightly crazy undersized kid in every neighborhood that everyone else thinks they could probably beat up, but nobody ever tries.
Pedroia’s presence will free up the other mids, most notably Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley. Bradley is a remarkable talent. In an age on increasing specialization, he’s a traditional box-to-box midfielder who’s both a rock solid defender and a dangerous offensive threat. In past US action he has seemed most at home in the deep-lying playmaker (i.e., the Andrea Piro) role, and with Pedroia at his back he can dedicate more of his energy to picking apart holes in opposing defenses.
He’ll be flanked by two utterly terrifying attacking midfielders in Derrick Rose of the Chicago Fire and Chelsea’s Chris Paul, regarded by many as the best playmaker in the game. The two demonstrated a keen understanding of one another throughout the qualifying stages, and Smith will give them the freedom to wander wherever opportunity takes them in the attacking third.
The smart money says Smith will opt for an offset two-man attack, with Bayern Munich’s LeBron James playing the role of target striker and Clint Dempsey, the third Seattle player in the side, sitting just off him in the second striker role where he wreaked such havoc across MLS in recent months. James is truly a beast – a player in the mode of Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba, only, if it can believed, both bigger and faster. Dominant in the air and impossible to get around, he’s a terror in the box.
While these strike us as the likely starters, Smith has options galore.
Look for his seven-man bench to include central defender Von Miller of the Colorado Rapids and the Revs’ Avery Bradley as cover on the flanks. While Thomas and Iguodala are as imposing as any pairing in the world, Miller’s size and mean streak add an extra layer of intimidation for opposing strikers to contemplate. Bradley might as well be invisible on this roster, given the star power of his teammates, but make no mistake – he’s one of the most effective wing defenders in the world and would start for most teams in this tournament.
The midfield is a veritable Who’s Who of What Do You Mean He Isn’t Starting? Aston Villa’s Tony Allen is the midfield analogue to Avery Bradley – quiet, unassuming, and lethal in the defense. Rajon Rondo (New England) and Stephen Curry (San Jose) will back up Paul and Rose, and each is capable of coming off the bench and generating instant offense should the starters prove ineffective.
Up top Smith not only has depth to draw on, he has versatility. While King James is the archetypal power forward, he’ll be backed up up by Tottenham Hotspur’s Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has plenty of height and is dangerous in the air, but he’s considerably quicker than James, who most assuredly doesn’t “dart” anywhere.
The last spot on the bench might very well go to a surprise. Inter Milan’s Troy Polamalu is 33 and his best days are certainly behind him. But he’s experienced and his leadership is valued by this squad. Not only that, he’s insanely versatile. Smith could deploy him anywhere on the back line and he can even play a holding role in a pinch. During his prime pundits routinely commented that Polamalu covered so much ground it seemed like there were three of him on the pitch. He’s the most disruptive defensive force in the history of the game and he may well have more to contribute.
Finally, if he’s sufficiently recovered from last year’s Achilles injury, we might see a swan song appearance by the Galaxy’s Kobe Bryant, a key piece of Smith’s last two World Cup champions.
The countdown to Brazil has begun. How accurate are our predictions? We’ll know in three weeks.