You can lose your first game and still advance from your four-team group. In fact, you can lose your first two games and still survive, as the U.S. learned last year at the Confederations Cup. It's something to keep in mind if the Americans drop their Group C opener against powerful England in Rustenburg, on June 12: The next two matches, against Slovenia on June 18 in Johannesburg and Algeria on June 23 in Pretoria, will do more to determine the Yanks' fate. Their primary goal is to enter that third game in position to go through without needing help from other results.
What will the U.S. approach be? Since the squad has no true gamebreakers, it relies on teamwork, an organized bend-but-don't-break defense and a counterattack that seeks the right opportunities to pounce. The creative spark comes from the midfield flanks, where Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have the freedom to cut inside and attack with the ball at their feet. The two central midfielders (Michael Bradley and one of the trio of Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu and José Torres) and the four-man back line are primarily defensive-minded, keeping tight lines and often absorbing possession when playing against top teams. Positioning is crucial for a defensive unit that lacks blazing speed.
When U.S. coach Bob Bradley talks about "the modern game," one hallmark is "making it hard for the other team," as he puts it. "What happens when the ball turns over? What are the reactions like, both in attack and in defense?" he says. "Can you take advantage of moments where the ball is turned over and the other team isn't in a perfect position? When you lose the ball, how quickly can you react to stop them from what they want to do?"
The U.S. can't overwhelm foes with raw talent, and it rarely wins the possession battle against tougher opponents. Playing the majority of their games on the defensive will test the Americans' stamina, all the more so if they go down a man, which is why they must avoid the red cards that have plagued them in recent international tournaments. But possession is not everything in soccer—as the Yanks proved in beating Spain 2--0 to reach last year's Confederations Cup final. If the U.S. really is one of the world's top 15 teams, it needs to advance from its not-so-fearsome foursome. Anything less will be considered a failure.