32 Teams in 32 Days: United States
When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as U.S. coach in the summer of 2011, it was on a platform of change. He has used different formations (4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2) in the three years since, but his basic template remains: While at their core the Americans have always been a defend-and-counter team, Klinsmann installed a more aggressive, safe-is-death approach.
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His defenders play a high line and build from the back; his forwards and midfielders press foes closer to the opposing goal, hoping to win the ball in dangerous spots. And, for the most part, it's worked, with wins against Germany and at Italy, Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina since early 2012.
Those results infused belief into the squad -- another key part of Klinsmann's strategy. Goalkeeper Tim Howard calls the German coach "a complete outside-the-box thinker," whose unconventional ideas (including regular double training days, unheard of for most national teams outside of major tournaments) have steeled the squad mentally.
The U.S. has long relied on confidence to punch above its weight. Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup as a player, is hoping the extra work on and off the field will lead the Yanks to new heights in Brazil.
After reaching the semifinals of the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the United States played in two more tournaments before failing to qualify for the event from 1954 through 1986. Now, the Americans are making their seventh straight Cup appearance. Their best showing in this latest stretch was 2002, when they reached the quarterfinals before being ousted by Germany 1-0.
How did they get here?
The U.S. struggled early in qualifying, needing all six games of CONCACAF's semifinal round, which included a first-ever defeat to Jamaica, just to reach the 2013 Hexagonal. A loss in Honduras in the opener ramped up the pressure, which threatened to consume the squad after several anonymous players publicly questioned Klinsmann's tactics and man-management skills.
That drama occurred just days before a crucial home match against Costa Rica. But instead of folding, the Americans won on Clint Dempsey's goal, then went into Mexico City and held the hosts to a scoreless draw, marking just the second time the Americans earned a point south of the border.
The momentum (as well as Jozy Altidore's eight goals) carried the Americans through the rest of the year, which ended with the best record in the program's 100-year history. The U.S. won in Jamaica for the first time (one of 12 straight victories last summer), and after losing in Costa Rica in September, beat El Tri at home, punching its ticket to Brazil with two games to spare. When it was over, the Americans sat atop the regional standings for the third consecutive World Cup cycle.
The numbers never lie
Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:
Klinsmann himself put it best. "We basically start with a World Cup final against Ghana," the coach said back in February. "We need badly these three points. If we get three points against Ghana, I think then that the confidence will rise, the guys will be pumped up, and they will be ready for Portugal and give them a real fight."
Easier said than done. The Black Stars eliminated the Americans in 2006 and 2010, and head into June's event with a powerful, experienced squad featuring nine players who competed in Europe's Champions League last season. (The U.S. has just one in former Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones.)
But Ghana is also the weakest of the Americans' three Group G foes. So while the U.S. will probably take a more methodical, tactical approach against Portugal and Germany -- depending on results, of course -- expect it to go toe-to-toe with Ghana from the opening kick. What is certain is the Americans won't be burdened by history.
"People call Ghana our bogey team," Howard said. "But to a man, nobody is concerned about that."
Most important player
With all-time U.S. scoring leader Landon Donovan left off Klinsmann's final roster for Brazil, the face of this team is undoubtedly fellow attacking vet Dempsey -- the lone American to score in each of the past two World Cups.
The U.S. team's most indispensable player, however, is midfield general Michael Bradley. The son of former U.S. coach Bob, Bradley may have been the Americans' best player as a 22-year-old four years ago in South Africa. Now 26, he still hasn't reached his prime. But the hard-tackling, tactically astute Bradley is already the team's inspirational leader, even if it's Dempsey who wears the captain's armband, and he'll be counted on to keep the U.S. organized and tuned in.
Bradley's vision, calmness on the ball and ability to contribute timely goals will be vital, too. He also has plenty to prove this summer after his big-money January move from Champions League-bound Italian club Roma to MLS also-ran Toronto FC, a transfer that led some to question Bradley's desire to excel at the top level.
Definition of success
Sure, they're in the Group of Death, but the unlucky draw will be no consolation if the Americans can't survive it in Brazil. Despite long odds, advancing is still the expectation for a squad that has emerged from the first round in two of the past three tournaments (and at three straight World Cups played outside of Europe).
Internally, the Americans quietly fancy their chances of finishing among the top two in a quartet that includes European titans Germany and Portugal, plus Africa's best team, Ghana -- even if the bookies don't.
"It's not going to be easy, but what we're going to worry about is playing our best soccer," defender Matt Besler said. "We're going to try and peak at the right time and put together three of our best games. If we do that, I really think that we're going to advance."
If they do, they'll be playing with house money, and Klinsmann has targeted the semifinals as the ultimate goal for a team that's made it only as far as the quarters over the past 80 years. Realistically, though, reaching the second round would be a triumph.
How far will the United States go?
Klinsmann's squad is unpredictable and seems equally capable of either succeeding or failing spectacularly this summer. The U.S. will probably end up somewhere in between, and that won't be enough in Group G: Three points, three and out.
ESPN FC Analysts' take: Kasey Keller
Klinsmann has tried to get this squad to be more possession-based, more offensive. They've gotten a lot better and emphasize putting other teams under pressure. But you still have to look at the reality: Can they do that against Germany? Probably not.
The U.S. has always had strong team spirit, and that can allow this squad to achieve results -- in this group, especially, they will have to thrive on an underdog mentality.
The defense lacks experience at the World Cup level. On the offense, the team has swung away from European-based play experience since Bradley and Dempsey moved back to the MLS, which a lot of people consider a drawback. But it's not all bad: Players will be just three months into the MLS season come June and maybe not as fatigued as those from European leagues at the end of a 10-month slog.