U.S. must decide first team to reach potential

By Simon Evans

MIAMI (Reuters) - The United States need to establish a first-choice line-up quickly if they are to transform the successes of the past year into a long run at the World Cup.

Victory over European champions Spain in the Confederations Cup last year gave a huge boost to the self-belief of Bob Bradley's squad and this was followed by the U.S. taking a two-goal lead over Brazil in the final, before losing 3-2.

Qualification for the World Cup finals was achieved with relatively few complications. But the final match of the campaign, a 2-2 draw with Costa Rica in October, may yet have an impact on the campaign in South Africa.

Although the result had no bearing on the U.S.'s qualification, the team suffered two serious injuries.

The day before the match, striker Charlie Davies, who had brought a new dimension to Bradley's team with his pace and confidence, was involved in a car accident which killed a friend. Davies suffered injuries that have kept him out of competitive football since.

Then, in the game, central defender Oguchi Onyewu, who had matured into the linchpin of the defense and had recently signed for AC Milan, suffered serious knee ligament damage.

Onyewu is back in the squad for the pre-tournament training camp but if he misses out, this would mean a new pairing in the center of defense with little time to gel.

Bradley is trying out several options for the forward line. Davies's strike partner, Jozy Altidore, has had a poor run of form for Hull and so the coach may have to opt for a new front pairing.

On the plus side, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have enjoyed good spells in England and will be crucial to Bradley's plans, whether in midfield or higher up the field. The center of midfield is settled with Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark almost certain to start.

So the talent is there, the team has experience and a good coach. The only question is whether Bradley can mold them into an effective unit for the June 12 opener against England.

Slovenia and Algeria may be tougher opponents than some American fans imagine but the U.S. will expect to go through the group stage with England.

(Editing by Robert Woodward)