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Armageddon has not yet arrived for United States coach Bob Bradley, but Clint Dempsey's knee ligament injury over the weekend took the USA to the brink of a monumental World Cup headache.
Dempsey will go for a scan on Monday after suffering suspected posterior cruciate ligament damage in Fulham's 2-0 English Premier League defeat to Blackburn, and the chances are that he will face an uphill battle to be back in time to play in South Africa this summer.
With Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies both having suffered serious injuries, Bradley can barely afford any kind of fitness setback. The loss of Dempsey, though, would be felt more severely than that of virtually any other player in the squad.
The 26-year-old Dempsey was a star of the U.S.'s spectacular run to the final of the Confederations Cup last summer, and he has been outstanding for Fulham this season. He is widely regarded as the one player who could add some genuine sparkle to Bradley's solid and disciplined team and boost its chances of progressing past the opening stage of the World Cup.
As things stand, Bradley still has options if Dempsey is indeed out.
Landon Donovan, who's playing exceptionally well in his loan spell at Everton, can operate just behind lead striker Jozy Altidore. Stuart Holden, currently on trial with Bolton Wanderers of the EPL, would be a reasonable option on the right wing. Such a structure would not be as dynamic as one including Dempsey, but it would not necessarily represent a catastrophe.
However, Dempsey provides a legitimate offensive mentality and a desire to create difficulty in the opposition's penalty area with his aggressive runs. Without him, the USA's approach is not more defensive, but the outcome is a less potent overall package for rivals to concern themselves.
Add another casualty to the list and the problems intensify further. The U.S. finds itself toeing a fine line with injuries now and cannot afford even one more fitness concern to a key player between now and June.
Bradley has done a fine job molding together a productive unit. It has been a four-year process of gradual building and the end game is approaching. Much of Bradley's most important work is done – and now comes the time when he needs a little luck. God forbid anything bad happening to a key performer like Donovan or Michael Bradley. If it did, the USA would go to South Africa at a serious disadvantage.
The Americans are considered a favorite to finish second behind England in Group C. That hypothesis is based on the assumption that everyone will be fit. If the U.S.'s injury luck continues to go south, Slovenia and Algeria, who are proficient and dangerous teams, will like their chances of defeating the USA.
International soccer does not allow for big money transfers and while Bradley has a deep pool of players to call upon, he does not have the luxury of having naturally gifted and imaginative players all the way down the roster.
This World Cup still represents a tremendous opportunity for the U.S., both to prove itself as a force to be reckoned with on the biggest stage and also to boost the popularity of the game in this country. But injuries are the X-factor that Bradley is powerless to influence.
These are nervous times all round – for Dempsey, for Bradley and for an expectant American soccer community.
Weekend Best XI
1. Get him an Advil
Los Angeles Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena will have been concerned by weekend reports out of England that David Beckham was considering retirement after the World Cup. However, Beckham spoke out in response almost immediately, insisting he would see out the remaining 18 months of his Galaxy contract – and maybe more.
2. Get him a beer
Ronaldinho is well and truly back to his best and has struck a golden seam of form to start the new year. The Brazilian completed a superb hat trick for AC Milan as the Rossoneri thrashed Siena 4-0 to keep some pressure on Serie A leader Inter Milan.
3. Get them some earplugs
The Glazer family, Manchester United's American owners, are under more pressure than ever as their financial dealings come under increased scrutiny. The level of debt the Glazers have undertaken to buy and maintain United has prompted a furious reaction from fan groups and a full-scale protest is expected at a Champions League game later this season.
4. Keep an eye on …
Angolan striker Flavio has captured the attention of several European clubs with his performances in the African Cup of Nations. The 30-year-old has scored three times in the tournament and could be tempted away from his current club, Saudi Arabian team Al-Shabab.
5. Catch a flight to …
Angola. The African Cup of Nations is heading towards its business end, and some fascinating matches beckon during the knockout rounds. The Ivory Coast burst into form by hammering Ghana on Friday, but Egypt could be the most dangerous team in the tournament and is our pick to win it all.
6. Useless and completely made-up statistic of the week
8 – The number of superlatives (including miraculous, sensational, magnificent, etc.) that Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp used to describe the performance of Hull goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, whose brilliant efforts led to a 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane on Saturday.
7. Fond farewell
Real Madrid's hopes of wresting the La Liga title were dealt a monumental blow by its defeat to Athletic Bilbao, allowing Barcelona to build its lead at the top to five points. Galacticos or not, Real's destiny is now out of its own hands.
8. Get ready to say hello to …
Michael Orozco. The U.S. Olympic team defender is poised to leave Mexican side San Luis and link up with MLS newcomer the Philadelphia Union.
9. Get ready to say goodbye to …
Stuart Holden. The Houston Dynamo and USA midfielder is impressing on an extended trial with EPL side Bolton Wanderers and a permanent deal looks probable.
10. Get excited about …
Referees don't get much love but EPL official Mark Halsey's successful fight against throat cancer – and impending return to action – is a heartwarming tale. We wish him a successful and healthy comeback.
11. Why it's good to be a soccer player
Take a look at Bernadien Eillert, wife of Bayern Munich forward Arjen Robben.