NEW YORK (Reuters) - The days are long gone when it was a surprise for the United States to reach the World Cup finals, but for a country used to sporting success they are still some way short of making a major impact on the tournament.
It remains one of the final sporting frontiers for the United States to conquer although they reached the semi-finals in 1930 and caused one of soccer’s greatest upsets when they beat England the last time that the World Cup was held in Brazil in 1950.
Since that inaugural event they have reached the quarter-finals just once, in 2002, although this will be the United States’ seventh successive appearance in the finals, a consistent run bettered only by Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany, Spain and South Korea.
They face a tough challenge going far in Brazil after being drawn in Group G with Germany, Portugal and Ghana although head coach Juergen Klinsmann is adamant his side has every chance of reaching the round of 16.
“I‘m not worried at all. I’ll just take it the way it is and we’re going to prepare the best way and we’re going to be well prepared for the World Cup,” Klinsmann said.
”We’ll build up confidence and believe that we can get good results to get into the next round.
“We’re excited about this, big time. That’s where you want to be in a World Cup. It’s a difficult draw but we’ll find a way to go through it.”
The U.S. have a solid team with a lot of depth in the midfield and an experienced coach who knows what it takes to win the sport’s ultimate prize.
The main strength of the team is their central midfield, particularly Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, who provide the steel and overall focus to dominate the centre of the park.
The U.S. have surpassed Mexico as CONCACAF’s best team after dominating the qualifying tournament. In the final round of qualifying, the Americans won seven and drew one of their 10 matches, scoring 15 goals and conceding eight.
They have also recorded confidence-boosting victories against European opposition since Klinsmann took over in 2011, including Germany, Italy and world champions Spain.
“I look at things always from a positive side. We have a young team, a team that is growing. We’ve built a lot over the past two years,” Klinsmann said.
”We’ve had the most successful year in our history in 2013, so we’ve built the confidence and the belief that we can deal with those challenges.
“We’re going to take it one game at a time, starting with Ghana who gave us some issues in the recent World Cups. If we start off there well, then it builds even more confidence for the next two big ones.”
Defense remains a weakness and Klinsmann has not yet settled on his best unit. He has opted for Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler as his central defensive pairing but there are question marks when they are up against top strikers.
If the U.S. succeed at the World Cup it will almost certainly be because Bradley and Jones dominate the midfield and Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey find their scoring boots.
If they flop, it is likely to be because their defense has not held up.
“We’re not underdogs. All 32 nations in the World Cup are big names,” Klinsmann said.
That is exactly what the United States did on the afternoon of June 29, 1950, in Belo Horizonte when they defeated England 1-0.
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about that match, attempting to explain how an England team with some of its greatest players, like Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright, Wilf Mannion - but not Stanley Matthews - lost to the States, a disparate band made up of all kinds of nationalities.
The only goal was scored by the Haitian-born Joe Gaettjens who later disappeared in the dark days of the Papa Doc regime in his homeland and was never seen alive again.
With both England and the U.S. in this summer’s tournament, Belo Horizonte officials had been hoping they would be drawn together for a re-match in their city, but the draw was unkind to them.
Instead the U.S. will try and create some new legends of their own in Natal, Manaus and Recife where Klinsmann faces his compatriots in the last of their group games.
If his men can do to the Germans what the 1950 Americans did to England, who would predict how far the U.S. can go?
Reporting by Julian Linden; editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Mike Collett