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2014 World Cup

Hejduk, Sanneh, Pope Break Down U.S. Cup Prospects

Looking for some fresh perspective, ASN spoke to five former World Cup players—including Eddie Pope, Frankie Hejduk, and Tony Sanneh—to get their take on the United States' chances in Brazil.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
June 12, 2014
10:44 AM
THE UNITED STATES IS STUCK in the hardest group in the tournament. The U.S. coach is downplaying the team's chances and most pundits think it will require a major upset, and a little luck, just to advance out of group play.

And yet, as the 2014 World Cup is about to begin, many former U.S. national team players and other ex-players connected with the team like the United States' prospects in Brazil despite having to play a pre-tournament favorite in Germany, a team featuring arguably the best player in the planet in Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, and perennial bugaboo Ghana, which has eliminated the U.S. in the last two World Cups.

“I really like this team. There’s not a lot of room for error, but no team has that, but especially in the group they’re in,” said Brian Maisonneuve, a midfielder on the U.S. team at 1998 World Cup in France and now coaching at Indiana University. “But I take a lot of confidence from how they looked in these (three tune-up) games heading into the World Cup and the fact they got get better in each of them. If they play like they did against Nigeria, they can do some good things.”

“It’s not going to be easy, that’s obvious because they’re in the toughest group,” said Tony Sanneh, a veteran of the U.S.’s run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. “But it’s also not impossible, either. They need to see this as a great opportunity to prove themselves, to prove people wrong, to make a name for themselves. It’s their moment, go out and take it.”

Frankie Hejduk, a member of the 1998 and 2002 World Cup teams, also emphasized confidence and seizing the moment.

“One thing the U.S. has proven in the past is we do perform in big games against big teams,” said Hejduk, now working in the Columbus Crew’s front office. “These guys, they have it in them. [They're] always a bit of the underdog, play with a chip on their shoulders. If ever there’s a time to show the world we’re a soccer power, the time is now."

Warren Barton is known to American viewers as a talking head on Fox soccer broadcasts, but before coming to this country, where he also coaches youth soccer, Barton played for Newcastle and several other teams and earned a couple of caps for England’s national team. As a studio analyst he’s not shy about being critical or worried about being seen as negative. And yet…

“This team has a real togetherness to them, a spark, there’s just something there about this group intrigues me, a different dimension than they’ve had in the past,” Barton said. “They’re very athletic and fit and their team spirit in a tournament like the World Cup, that can take them places.”

Can it take them out of the group stage especially given the skill-level of the other teams in their group? That almost likely depends on the result of the first game this Monday against Ghana.

Ghana’s the key,” said Hall of Famer Eddie Pope, a veteran of three World Cup campaigns. “Technically it’s not impossible to advance if you don’t beat Ghana but it makes it so much harder if you don’t.”

Is that realistic, especially given the results against Ghana the last two World Cups?

“It’s not like those games were blow-outs,” said Pope. “We got a little unlucky (in 2006) in Germany and lost by a goal and it went to extra time four years ago. But we have to come out ready. They can’t afford to come out flat and be down early.”

Still no one thinks it will be easy. “I don’t think Ghana is as good as they were but they are a hard team,” said Sanneh. “Athletic, technical, and they play hard. They fight. But if they get a win against Ghana, then tactically, a tie against Portugal becomes a great result.”

Of course, that means containing Real Madrid’s Ronaldo, merely the reigning world player of the year.

“Gotta double team him, hell sometimes triple team him,” said Hejduk. “He can hurt you in so many different ways. Portugal is more than Ronaldo but if you contain him you have a chance. The mids have to be able to drop back in defense whenever he has the ball. Tackle him early, hard. Maybe tackle him two or three times to send him a message. I know other teams try that, and it doesn’t always work, but let him know he’s in for a fight.”

As counterintuitive as it seems, Barton thinks the U.S. should try and funnel the ball to Ronaldo as much as possible when Portugal is in possession. “Obviously, he can still hurt you when he has the ball,” said Barton. “But he’s so dangerous off the ball, sneaking into spaces and getting his head on a cross or a foot on a rebound. When he doesn’t have the ball you might lose sight of him. But when he has the ball, he’s the focus of the defense’s attention and then you have a better chance to limit him.”

All the self-belief and double-teaming and hard fouls won’t mean squat if the U.S.’s players don’t play well, and that means big performances from the likes of Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and, yes, the much-beleaguered Jozy Altidore.

“The ‘keeper they’ve got, he’s as good as any ‘keeper in the whole tournament,” said Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark, who knows a thing or two about goalkeeping after being a member of Scotland’s 1978 World Cup team and starring for Aberdeen—where he played for a guy named Alex Ferguson— for almost two decades. “He makes the big saves but he also provides great leadership and has experience the team can feed off.”

While Howard can keep the team in games, Michael Bradley can be a game-changer. “It all goes through him,” said Pope. “Let the creator create. He’s so good on the counter and picking up his head and finding the open guy and hitting that perfect pass.”

“To me, he’s the American version of Steven Gerrard,” Barton said in reference to the Liverpool and England midfielder. “Box-to-box, doing the work defensively, which he’ll have to do, but then still able to get forward and create chances.”

“I really like the formation they used against Nigeria where Kyle (Beckerman) and Jermaine (Jones) played behind Bradley,” said Maisonneuve. “When he has two players behind him that really frees him up offensively and he can still track back and double team defensively. I can see them using that lineup a lot.”

Hejduk expects Beckerman, making his World Cup debut at age 32, to be up for the moment. “He’s ready to go. He’s waited a long time but he’s earned this being one of the best players in MLS for years and years now. We need fighters out there, everyone scrapping, and you know he’s going to fight.”

Sanneh agrees that Bradley will be vital but added “you know what you’re going to get from Michael because he’s so consistent. Same with Timmy and Clint Dempsey. To me, the key is Jozy. Him being effective or not effective will have a big bearing on us keeping the ball, keep defenses honest, and of course finish. If he’s fighting and doing the target things, that’s the key to having more possession and getting scoring threats on a consistent basis.”

In Altidore’s two-goal performance against Nigeria, Pope was more heartened by Altidore’s tap-in then his second half golazo where he flashed considerable skill. “That first goal that’s all about keeping your head in the game and making the right run to be in the right place. Even though he was struggling (in the games leading up that goal) he never stopped working.”

As it is for most U.S. fans, the team’s backline is the biggest concern. In a search for a trustworthy combination Jurgen Klinsmann has rotated a series of central defenders before appearing to settle on Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, who hadn’t played together much before the send-off series and who worked with different fullbacks in each game.

“The thing I worried most about is the defense has not played a lot of games together as a unit,” said Sanneh. “Guys have shown some bright spots but not group cohesiveness. The four across the back, I don’t know how many times they played together and that could cause problems.”

Added Pope: “You worry about the backs not having played together a ton, what that will look like? The big part is communication. They have to be vocal out there.”

Clark coached Besler at Notre Dame and won’t be surprised if Omar Gonzalez, who partnered Besler much of qualifying before struggling with an injury, re-enters the equation. “I thought Matt and Omar had a nice partnership, nice chemistry. They played off each other well. Cameron played well for Stoke but most of that was at fullback. So they may move them around some.”

Much has been made in the U.S. media about Klinsmann’s recent comments about the U. S. not being able to win the World Cup but that isn’t expected to impact the team.

“First of all, in Europe they’re smart enough to know that not every team can win the Super Bowl,” said Sanneh. “They know that finishing fourth can be as a big a result for some teams and just not finishing in the bottom three is huge for some teams. I think the players know that’s what he was talking about and that’s if they even know he said it. A lot of the guys, I bet they wouldn’t know he said it unless (the media) asks them about it.”

And Hejduk, never shy on self-confidence, thinks this team will surprise their coach. “We’re playing against the best. If you can get out of this group, you can win the World Cup. I really believe that. And I have us going (1-0-2) and getting out of the group."

"And I have the U.S. and Brazil in the final.”

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. You can follow him on Twitter.

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