The U.S. Men’s Natoinal Team begins the final round of World Cup Qualifying Wednesday at 3 p.m. against Honduras in the city of San Pedro Sula. Here’s what to watch for in 2013 as The Yanks try to earn a spot in Brazil in 2014.
If/When Landon Donovan will join the team. The 30-year-old forward has been the face of U.S. soccer since being named “Best Young Player” at the 2002 World Cup. Donovan told the media he needed a break in October 2012, due to physical and mental exhaustion.
I've never been a fan of Donovan's on-the-field attitude. In recent years, he's clearly not been enjoying the game the way he should. USMNT needs him to get his head straight, though, because there's no American who can match his combination of speed, vision, passing efficiency, timing and shot and set-piece accuracy.
He won’t play in Honduras Wednesday. Just when the U.S.’s all-time assists and goals leader will join the team is even more pressing considering the team faces rival Mexico in Mexico City on March 26, where the U.S. won for the first time Aug. 15, 2012.
Subquestion: Can he be the leader the U.S. needs him to be if/when he returns to the pitch?
Will outside backs emerge? Injuries to Steve Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson have left the U.S. team with little international experience at outside back, and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is searching for answers. Outside backs Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow, and center back Matt Besler made their U.S. soccer debuts against Canada Jan. 29, all in starting roles. They played well, allowing Canada just one shot on target in the 0-0 match.
Whoever Klinsmann puts on the back line against Honduras will face a better team with a lot more on the line, though. Goalkeeper Tim Howard may have a heavy shot load to take on Wednesday.
Will Jozy Altidore take the next step? The 23-year-old striker has scored 13 goals in 51 appearances for the U.S. since 2007. His 2010 World Cup performances were riddled with missed chances and squandered opportunities, though.
Altidore has 15 goals in 19 Dutch Eredivisie league appearances for AZ Alkmaar this season, despite facing racist taunts from opposing fans. If he can carry that composure over into international competition, the U.S. could have the star striker it so desperately needs.
How good is Dempsey? After finishing tied for fourth in the English Premier League last season with 17 goals while playing for Fulham, Dempsey has just five goals in 19 league matches for Tottenham Hotspur this season.
With two double-digit goal scorers on the team, Tottenham doesn’t rely on Dempsey to score as much as Fulham did. There is one thing for certain, though. For the U.S. to go very far in next year’s World Cup, or to even qualify this year, Dempsey will have to create chances on goal, and capitalize when he does.
Can The Yanks find consistency? In the last four years, USMNT has beaten or tied four of the top six teams in the current FIFA World Rankings: Italy (No. 4), Argentina (No. 3), England (No. 6) and Spain (No. 1). They've also lost to teams outside the FIFA top 50, including Costa Rica (No. 66), Jamaica (No. 58) and, yep, Honduras (No. 59).
Klinsmann has The Yanks playing some of their most consistent soccer in a long time, going 9-2-3 in 2012. When USMNT plays like they did in their 1-0 win over Italy last February, they can play with anyone in the world. To do that consistently, Klinsmann will need a lot of the above questions answered positively, like finding solid outside defenders, getting Donovan back on the pitch and Altidore finding the back of the net when he gets a chance.
Make no mistake, the United States looks to be a long way from fielding a soccer team that can make a legitimate run at the World Cup Finals, something the head coach will be quick to admit. While The Yanks can upset some of the best teams, it hasn't come close to showing the kind of top-notch teamwork we see from Spain every single game, or the firepower like Argentina, Germany and England bring to every pitch.
All that matters is 90 minutes against the team in front of you. Forget that, and The Yanks may be watching the 2014 World Cup from home. Remember it every match, and there is no limit to what they can do. Win one at a time, starting with Honduras Wednesday.