We preview the 2010 FIFA World Cup, set for June 11-July 11 in South Africa.
Appearance: Ninth overall, sixth consecutive
Last time there: 2006, exited in first round
Best performance: Semifinals (1930)
There are not many more storylines in this event as volatile.
The United States has been feast or famine in recent World Cups. In 1994, as the hosts, the Americans staged a nice run, beating Colombia and falling dramatically to eventual champion Brazil in the second round.
With higher expectations in 1998, the Americans flopped badly, finishing last among the 32 qualifiers and costing coach Steve Sampson his job.
After Bruce Arena came aboard, things started looking up again. At the 2002 World Cup, Team USA upset Portugal, managed to make the second round, then shocked the world with a 2-0 win over Mexico. Only a controversial uncalled handball in a 1-0 loss to Germany kept the United States from a potential semifinal spot.
In 2002, Arena's job went the same way of Sampson's. The Americans were not nearly good enough, falling out after going 0-2-1 in the group stage.
A great run through the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup instilled hope that the United States was on the road back under coach Bob Bradley. But recent matches have shown a vulnerable defense and questionable depth.
That defense's key is Oguchi Onyewu, a big man who is coming off a major knee injury and looked shaky in a pre-tournament friendly loss to the Czech Republic. Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit are quality defenders, and Carlos Bocanegra has value on the wings as both a defender and attacker.
Two players make the offense go as much as anyone on the team. Midfielder Landon Donovan has played well as of late, and is looking to shake off a pretty dreadful performance in 2006. Forward Jozy Altidore can score as good as anyone, with six in qualifiers, and he's a dangerous offensive player.
Midfielders Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey will contribute offensively if they're in good form during the tournament. If they're not in good form, the Americans are in trouble, because they won't generate enough possession or creativity in the midfield to get by anyone of significance.
One thing to like about this team is their ability to have offensive balance. They're not all about Altidore, Donovan, Dempsey, or Bradley. The negative is that even one of these guys not playing well can throw the whole team for a loop. Coach Bradley needs them all to help keep the heat off his relatively shaky backline. That defense will sink this team at some point, but Bradley hopes it's later rather than sooner.
June 12 vs. England (Rustenburg)
June 18 vs. Slovenia (Johannesburg -- Ellis Park)
June 23 vs. Algeria (Pretoria)