His disastrous year abroad—two goals in 41 total appearances—amazingly didn't imperil his standing with the national team. Why? He remains the rare American forward capable of bullying center backs, and he has played well in U.S. colors, including a USMNT-record five-game scoring streak last summer. Altidore gets more support from his U.S. midfield than he does from Sunderland's; that should give the 24-year-old an injection of much-needed confidence.
Seattle Sounders, MLS
After a much-ballyhooed move from England to MLS, he suffered a terrible 2013—one goal in 12 games, then a fruitless loan spell back to Fulham. But he rebounded and led MLS with eight goals in nine games this season before leaving for Cup prep. The U.S. captain is his team's best creator, best holdup player and top goal poacher. No matter the alignment, Dempsey, 31, has positional freedom, often starting as a striker but dropping deep to facilitate an attack.
Jóhannsson / Wondolowski
ARON JÓHANNSSON played well enough this season in Holland with AZ Alkmaar—17 goals in 34 games—that he easily could have bumped Altidore out of the starting lineup. At 23 he offers a different set of skills than either starter: He's faster and more comfortable running at defenders. Those differences make him an ideal change-of-pace sub, able to come on late and influence a game immediately. Expect him to be the first man off the bench.... Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes) earned the final forward spot, knocking out Terrence Boyd and Landon Donovan. Wondo's nine goals in 11 U.S. appearances over the last year impressed, as did his comfort as a sub. He gets by more on guile than athleticism, and there is some question as to how effective he will be against the world's best, but his production for club and country can't be denied.
The player U.S. fans seem most eager to replace in the lineup because of his untimely giveaways and reckless challenges, Jones, 32, has J√ºrgen Klinsmann's support for a couple of reasons: his European club pedigree and his leadership role among the team's contingent of German-Americans. While Jones is a yellow card waiting to happen—odds are good that his aggression will force him to sit out at least one group game—every team needs a hard man, and he fills that role with aplomb.
Toronto FC, MLS
His move from Roma back to MLS puzzled some pundits, but Bradley's early performances for Toronto and in subsequent American friendlies suggest that his game hasn't suffered. His goal-and-an-assist effort against Mexico in April was Bradley at his best. The 26-year-old has developed from a (mostly) defensive specialist under his father, former U.S. manager Bob Bradley, into a two-way player capable of precise passes and dangerous runs into the offensive third.
The Wide Man
Sporting KC, MLS
He illustrates how MLS can develop late bloomers: A 27-year-old who didn't sniff the USMNT until 2012, Zusi took advantage of a shortage of dependable U.S. wingers and translated his steady club form (five or more goals in each of the past three seasons) to the national level. With KC, Zusi plays up top in a 4-3-3, higher than his U.S. position, but that's a minor adjustment. He's tireless, rarely gets caught out of position and can create space to whip in a good cross, such as his goal-on-a-platter to Altidore against Jamaica.
The Spark Plug
He was on the preliminary roster in 2010 but didn't make the final 23, giving him the look of a perpetual fringe prospect. Then came '13, when Klinsmann gave him another look and the 27-year-old impressed. Bedoya is speedy and versatile, with the work rate of a young Frankie Hejduk. He's often an attacking midfielder for Nantes, but for the U.S. he'll play on the outside. In games he doesn't start, he'll provide a valuable boost off the bench.
Beckerman / Diskerud / Davis / Green
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake) may have to start a game depending on matchups and the possibility of Jones or Bradley having to sit out for yellow-card accumulation. He's a changeup midfielder, more deliberate and defensive-minded than either Jones or Bradley. The other option, Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), is more attack-minded and is best deployed higher up the field.... Winger Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo) was a surprise inclusion. He brings precise defensive positioning and a strong left foot that is valuable on set pieces.... The number of wide midfielders on the roster is greater than it seems: Defenders DaMarcus Beasley, Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler can also play on the wing.... Julian Green, the 19-year-old Bayern Munich phenom who made a last-minute switch from Germany to the U.S., is unlikely to play meaningful minutes. His inclusion is an investment in the future by a coach who just signed an extension through World Cup '18 in Russia.
The Last Line
Given the attackers he will face from Ghana, Portugal and Germany in Group G, the U.S.'s backstop must be great, not just good, for his team to advance. Howard, 35, was often great this season, with 14 clean sheets for the English Premier League's fifth-place side. Remember: A year ago some were calling for Howard to give way to Guzan, the capable backup coming off a stellar season for Aston Villa. Howard's recent play silenced such talk; that's perfect timing for the Yanks, who wouldn't have salvaged a draw with England four years ago without Howard.
Guzan / Rimando
Few teams are as rich between the posts as the U.S. At 29, Brad Guzan is regarded as top-notch in England, only slightly below Howard. He had nine shutouts in 2013--14: not bad for any keeper, but stellar for one on a team fighting to avoid relegation. His time will come with the national squad, but barring injury, that won't be until 2018.... Typically, the third goalkeeper is a youngster brought along to gain experience. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake) is not that, but the 34-year-old is the consummate pro, beloved by teammates and one of the unsung heroes of MLS.
1899 Hoffenheim, Ger.
Klinsmann would prefer the 26-year-old's in the midfield, where his pace and linkup play add a dimension sorely lacking. But shoring up the defense has taken precedence. Johnson's overlapping runs from right back—not unlike Steve Cherundolo's at the 2010 World Cup—will be one of the U.S.'s best weapons.
Stoke City, England
Cameron, 28, can play all over the back (he lined up on the right for Stoke), but given his height (6'3"), ability in the air and keen sense of distribution, Klinsmann sees center back as Cameron's best spot. Moving him inside allows for a faster player on the right to face the speedy wingers the U.S. will see.
Sporting KC, MLS
He didn't make his U.S. debut until 2013, at 25, yet Besler so quickly assumed the back line leadership role previously held by Carlos Bocanegra that it seems as if this center back has been around for years. Like the former captain, Besler is left-footed, smart and an underrated athlete.
When he made only a brief appearance in South Africa, it seemed clear: Beasley's USMNT days were numbered. Klinsmann had other ideas, moving Beasley, 32, from left wing to left back, where he filled a glaring hole. While he often loses battles because of his slight frame, he's still swift and savvy, and he brings invaluable experience.
Gonzalez / Brooks / Chandler / Yedlin
Center back Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy) once seemed a lock to start in the middle, but his failings in recent friendlies got him benched.... John Brooks (Hertha BSC, Germany) unseated steady veteran Clarence Goodson for the fourth center spot. Brooks played well late in the club season but has struggled in recent U.S. appearances, so the best-case scenario is that he sits in Brazil but soaks up the atmosphere in preparation for a bigger role in 2018.... Klinsmann went with athleticism over experience at fullback. After starting Brad Evans at right back for much of qualifying, the coach dropped him. He favored Timmy Chandler, a true right back for FC N√ºrnberg in Germany who can also play on the left, and DeAndre Yedlin, the 20-year-old right back for the Seattle Sounders. Yedlin is lethal going forward, but his defensive instincts and positioning are still works in progress. Chandler's speed and experience in the Bundesliga could come in handy against the dangerous attackers the U.S. will face from Portugal and Germany.
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
Klinsmann embraced a switch to this so-called "diamond" formation of late, starting with an April friendly against Mexico, and the move has been attributed to Klinsmann's adding former German national-team coach Berti Vogts as a tactician. The key difference: Jones (or occasionally Beckerman) is positioned alone in front of the back four and maintains the diamond shape of the midfield, permitting Bradley to contribute more in the attack. The offense gets its width here from the fullbacks, Johnson and Beasley. This attacking setup makes sense in the must-win opener against Ghana.
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
Klinsmann's preferred alignment during most of his U.S. tenure has midfielders Jones and Bradley sitting in front of the back four, providing defensive cover and linking to the attack. Dempsey is positioned behind the lone striker (Altidore) with the freedom to push high or drop back and assist in the buildup. Expect this formation if the U.S is either holding a lead or looking to defend and counter—a likely approach against a superior side, such as Germany.
June 16, 6 p.m. ET, Natal
GHANA EMPLOYS a lone striker—Asamoah Gyan, whose goal knocked out the U.S. in 2010—typically in front of three attackers: André Ayew and Majeed Waris on the wings, with the dangerous Kevin-Prince Boateng in the middle. Two defensive midfielders protect the back line and look to spring counterattacks. Like the U.S., the Black Stars have a shaky back four; unlike the U.S., Ghana has a goalkeeper, Fatau Dauda, who is merely serviceable. Needing three points before his team faces Portugal and Germany, U.S. coach J√ºrgen Klinsmann will most likely press high and encourage more of an attacking approach. In a perfect world this pressure creates an early goal, allowing the U.S. to sit back and defend. The nightmare scenario: The Yanks concede early, forcing them to press even more, then get exposed on the counter. A 2--0 setback, given the opponents to follow, would make advancing out of Group G almost impossible.
June 22, 6 p.m. ET, Manaus
CRISTIANO RONALDO has never faced the U.S., not even in a friendly, but the Americans know full well that he'll give their callow defenders fits. And Ronaldo, a two-time World Player of the Year, is only one problem posed by the Portuguese. Their preferred 4-3-3 places Ronaldo on one side, usually the left, but with the freedom to roam; Hugo Almeida at center forward; and Nani on the opposite side. The trio behind them is likely to include assist wizard Jo√£o Moutinho and Raul Meireles, the muscle. The U.S. won't enjoy much possession against that group, so it's likely to bunker on defense and hope for a goal on the counter or on a set piece. Expect Klinsmann to park Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of the back four, keep Fabian Johnson on the back line to help deal with Ronaldo, and ask his wingers to drop and protect the flanks. Klinsmann will hope that the heat in the Amazon gets to the Portuguese, allowing for a late goal against the run of play. A scoreless draw might be the best possible outcome.
June 26, 12 p.m. ET, Recife
THE APPROACH of both parties to this game will depend greatly on the results that precede it. The ideal scenario for the U.S. has the Germans arriving having already wrapped up the group. In that case, coach Joachim L√∂w might trot out another B team, such as the one the U.S. defeated 4--3 a year ago in Washington. If Germany fields its best lineup, however, it has superior players at every field position, highlighted by forward Marco Reus; midfielders Mario G√∂tze, Mesut √ñzil, Thomas M√ºller and Bastian Schweinsteiger; and defender Phillip Lahm, none of whom suited up last June. Die Mannschaft's very few weaknesses are at left back and in their tendency to press forward and leave space in front of the back four. This might be the game for the U.S. to start Aron Jóhannsson next to Jozy Altidore in a two-forward look, in the hope that Jóhannsson's speed and movement off the ball create problems. Defensively, the U.S. will try to hold tight and pray that Tim Howard has the game of his life.
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TWENTY FOUR PHOTOS
Photographs by Alexis Cuarezma for Sports Illustrated
GERARDO SANTOS/ATLANTICO PRESS/ZUMAPRESS.COM (NANI)
BORIS STREUBEL/GETTY IMAGES (OZIL)
TWENTY TWO ILLUSTRATIONS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY JASON LEE