As it is well-documented in the US and across the world, soccer is certainly not the game of the masses in the United States, despite a population of well over 300m. Continental cousins Europe, Latin America, and Africa lead the way as the sport’s most enthusiastic suitors.
The Americans’ top domestic league, the MLS, is far from being the most popular in the country. Although average attendances climbed 4.6 % from 16 815 fans a game in 2008 to 17 593 a game in 2009, many teams saw a sharp decline in interest. According to statistics, three MLS teams saw their average attendance fall more than 21 % – New England (21.9%), New York (21.5%) and Los Angeles (21.5%). The much-publicised presence of David Beckham appears to have done little to raise interest in a sport in which the USA flatters to deceive on the world stage. The league structure follows the same conference system that is used in American football as opposed to a straightforward league with one definitive table come the end of the campaign.
Where US Soccer deserve some credit is the way in which the game has been organised on a national level. Coaching is now accredited by US Soccer and a licence system is in place to ensure that those coaching the stars of tomorrow at least know the game. Youth development is an issue given due attention, with national sides from Under-14 upwards and the move to futsal among young players is encouraging. Developing players with skill and technique is the only way the USA can improve as a footballing nation and this appears to have been understood by the national federation. There is further hope for the future in the fact that although only 18m of its population play the sport, over-three quarters of those are under the age of 18. Soccer is growing as a sport among the current generation, even if the battle to win the hearts and minds of a previous one failed. Of special note here is the US Soccer Foundation, a charity which relies on donations from corporations and individuals for funding. Its ‘Soccer Across America’ programme aims to bring the sport to the most deprived areas, offering hope and ‘a way out’ to some who have little else. In a country where the hand of the state has always been light touch, the work of such charitable organisations is vital and cannot be underestimated.
The United States booked their place in South Africa after topping the CONCACAF Fourth Round, securing qualification in Washington in October. The US national team have an impressive statistic behind them as they will be competing in their sixth consecutive World Cup , and ninth overall, whilst the team are 14th in the world in the official FIFA world rankings (their highest ever ranking was fourth in April 2006). The most successful performance by the United States in the World Cup was the 1930 semi-final appearance, and the current crop are unlikely to reach such heights this summer. With regards to advancing to the second round of arguably the world’s most prestigious competition, the US in the last couple of decades achieved this feat as host nation in 1994 and more recently in 2002 to the quarter-finals thanks to the upsets over Portugal and fierce rivals, Mexico.
The US will expect to compete with Slovenia for second place in the group stages at the World Cup , with the victors of this duel expected to play likely Group D winners Germany. If this is indeed the case, the competition will almost certainly end here. Coach Bob Bradley will surely rely on his Premier League stars to fire the team into knock-out stages. Landon Donovan, who spent the second half 2009/10 on loan at Everton is undoubtedly the USA’s most influential player. The 28-year-old has a record total of 42 international goals in 121 appearances for the USA.
The USA usually adopts a 4-4-2 formation with rigid and tactically astute ‘plays’, but towards the end of the World Cup qualifiers, Bradley began to experiment with different formations and tactics, shifting towards a more fluid 4-3-3 formation, with overlapping full-backs. However, faced with quality opposition from England and Slovenia, it is likely that Bob Bradley will go for the pragmatic, organised style which has served them fairly well at previous World Cups . Donovan will be critical to their plans and the hope is that he – assisted by Clint Dempsey of Fulham – will be able to convert the chances they create while Michael Bradley will be expected to provide defensive cover in the centre of the pitch and supply assistance further forward when he can. Bradley has played in Europe since 2006 after moving across the Atlantic to Dutch side Heerenveen and he now plays for Borussia M