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Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Updated: June 9, 3:03 PM ET
Five big questions facing the U.S.

By ESPN.com

Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle
Who will help fill Charlie Davies' boots? Robbie Findley and Edson Buddle are two guys ready to go.

What are the big questions leading into the U.S. team's most anticipated match of all time? Our soccer experts -- Jeff Carlisle, Leander Schaerlaeckens, Brent Latham, Ravi Ubha and James Martin -- are put on the spot. Here are their answers. You can also read all the reports and musings of our writers over at the World Cup blog.

1. How far can the U.S. realistically go?

Brent Latham: A realistic upside for the U.S. would be the quarterfinals, if the team can find a rhythm and get a little luck along the way. The Americans should make the knockout rounds, and, on a game-by-game basis, anything can happen. But any improvement on that 2002 quarterfinal performance would require some serious good fortune.

James Martin: I think it's hopeful, but not ridiculous, to think the U.S. reaches the quarterfinals. The draw is favorable, and the squad should be able to draw on the experience it gained from last year's Confederation's Cup.

Leander Schaerlaeckens: Realistically, the round of 16.

Jeff Carlisle: I would say that a quarterfinal place isn't out of the question, given the Americans' confidence and a group that is awkward but navigable. Getting out of the group stage is probably the most realistic goal.

Ravi Ubha: I think I'm in the minority here, but the U.S. will be hard-pressed to get past the group stage. If England beats the U.S. to start, as most expect, and Slovenia beats Algeria, which should happen, the U.S. is immediately in a hole.

2. How will the U.S. cope with Charlie Davies' absence?

Schaerlaeckens: Badly, since Bob Bradley won't alter his lineup to reflect that he has no replacement for Davies and has strengths elsewhere that he isn't catering to.

Latham: Yes; first, they'll need to stop trying to replace him. What should trouble American fans most is that Bob Bradley still seems undecided on what options are best up top. In the end, Bradley will likely have to choose piecemeal among Dempsey, [Edson] Buddle, Findley and Gomez on a game-by-game basis, with speed, power, craftiness and timely finishing all available options -- just not all in one package.

Carlisle: Their chances would certainly be a lot better if Davies were healthy, but Bob Bradley has a couple of options. Herculez Gomez is a guy no one has heard of but who has a nose for goal. Clint Dempsey could also see some time up top, and his knack for the spectacular -- as evidenced by his goal against Juventus in the Europa League -- would give the U.S. a different kind of look. Robbie Findley is the player whose athleticism makes him the closest thing to a Davies clone, but he lacks Davies' consistency and finishing ability.

Ubha: Davies' pace will be sorely missed. Davies, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore sound much better as an attacking quartet than Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore and whoever else.

Martin: Davies will be missed, but as long as Jozy Altidore can stay injury-free, Bradley should be able find some effective attacking options. Perhaps he combines Jozy with Buddle, who caught fire in the last friendly. I'm not keen on the idea of using Dempsey as the lone striker -- he seems to play better just off the shoulder of a striker -- or moving Donovan up, as he provides too much in the midfield.

3. Will the U.S. defense hold up?

Martin: Hard to imagine, especially with the injuries and the poor performances from the two Jonathans -- Spector and Bornstein. The key, to me, is whether the U.S. can move Carlos Bocanegra out wide. If so, the Americans stand a chance. If not, I expect to see the U.S. skinned alive by the likes of Wayne Rooney.

Carlisle: Only if the defenders get healthy. The key is Oguchi Onyewu. If he can reprise his Confederations Cup form -- after spending the past seven months recovering from a torn patellar tendon -- then all is well. Otherwise, Bradley will have to start cannibalizing other parts of his defense. Ask West Ham fans how well Jonathan Spector performed at left back.

Oguchi Onyewu
Does Gooch need to be healthy for the U.S. defense to hold up?

Ubha: That's the million-dollar question. Oguchi Onyewu won't be tired, but he won't be match-fit, either. Jay DeMerit overcame his eye problems only to suffer from an abdominal strain recently. Carlos Bocanegra is fresh off hernia surgery. Steve Cherundolo had an injury-filled season at Hannover 96, and Jonathan Spector struggled at West Ham. Not good.

Schaerlaeckens: The defense won't be the problem; keeping possession and scoring goals will.

Latham: If this were one game, the answer would be yes. But defensive depth is a key to doing well in the World Cup, as injuries and card accumulation invariably test bench strength. A starting four of Onyewu and DeMerit in the middle with Bocanegra and Cherundolo on the wings looks solid enough, but the questions will come when one or more succumbs to injury or card accumulation. The backups don't seem to have the quality to perform consistently enough on this stage.

4. Does the U.S. really have an easy group?

Carlisle: "Tricky" is a better description. England? Enough said. Slovenia is organized and tough to break down, which is exactly the kind of team the U.S. struggles against. Algeria is a complete wild card; you never know which team is going to show up. Throw in the fact that the U.S. has almost always struggled when it has been the favorite, and you have a group that is anything but easy.

Ubha: It's not the hardest group, but it's not as easy as some think. It amazes me that many believe the U.S. will coast past Slovenia. Slovenia may be devoid of star names, but any side that knocks off Russia in a two-leg playoff is pretty darn good.

Schaerlaeckens: It isn't at all a bad group to be in. Slovenia won't be a pushover, though. Algeria might be, if it's been beaten in its first two games.

Latham: By absolute standards, no group is easy at the World Cup. By the relative standards you would use to judge, this is an easy group.

Martin: It all depends on how the first game goes. If the U.S. gets a point, or three, against England, it should be set -- especially with Algeria coping with its own injury issues. If, however, the U.S. comes up goose eggs against England, the pressure will mount. What happens if the Americans find themselves nil-nil in the 80th minute of the next game? The U.S. likes to play the underdog, not the favorite.

5. How important a World Cup is this for the U.S.?

Ubha: Very important. Last year's performance at the Confederations Cup got the attention of not only soccer fans but general sports fans in the U.S. The team needs a good showing to build on what happened last summer. Translated, that means advancing from the group stage.

Martin: The fact that people expect the U.S. to make it out of the group stage is proof of how far the sport has progressed in this country. And it'll continue to grow regardless of what happens in South Africa, though a quarterfinal appearance would help fire up the imaginations of the fans even more.

Schaerlaeckens: I don't really buy into the whole "This World Cup is make or break for soccer in the U.S." concept. There's more media attention than ever, which is a good thing. A good performance would help, of course, but anything short of a World Cup win won't exactly get the entire nation playing out in the streets.

Carlisle: Would a deep run in the tournament create a groundswell of interest? No question. But the game won't die if the team falls on its face. There is too much momentum on too many fronts -- from the growth of MLS to the increased number of Americans playing overseas -- to seriously hurt the game.

Latham: Americans like winners, so every World Cup is important in helping increase the fan base. In that sense, a good performance is hugely important. On an international level, the World Cup is where respect is won, and the U.S. would benefit from an improved image there, as well. But one World Cup represents only a snapshot of the fluid growth of the game in America, and, from that perspective, the seeds of progress have already been sown. A poor performance in three games in South Africa won't derail the progress of the American soccer program or the long-term promise of the game in the U.S.