Following a defiant seventh-round knockout of previously unbeaten Jose Pedraza (22-1, 12...
Team USA: This is Good but We’re Not There Yet
TALLAHASSEE- I get it.
We’re back on track.
The US, by virtue of their 2-1 win over Jamaica to claim its first win in Kingston in a World Cup Qualifier, a comprehensive 2-0 win over Panama in Seattle and a patient, grind it out 1-0 win over a depleted Honduras squad Tuesday night in Sandy, UT has locked down all available nine points in this leg of the Hex and now stands alone at the top of the Hex with 13 points from six matches.
To quote the crowd from both Tuesday night and last week in Seattle, “We Are Going To Brazil.” It’s going to take a monumental 1978-Red Sox-type collapse at this point for the US not to qualify for its 7th consecutive World Cup.
While I’m encouraged by The Squad coming to play in each of these qualifiers, I’m not ready to say the US is… ready.
And neither should you.
This isn’t a knock on what they’ve done over the last few weeks, especially considering where we were the last time the played Honduras.
But I’m reminded of what The Wolf told Vincent and Jules at Jimmy’s house in Toluca Lake after they cleaned up what was left of Marvin in Jules’ car. To paraphrase, “Let’s not get too happy with ourselves, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The Process is not yet complete.
See it wasn’t THAT long ago that US fans, this writer included, were (to be nice) unimpressed with how the US was playing. A lackluster first round of qualifying, marked by wins that weren’t as convincing as they should have been, late game lapses that cost us points on the road and a first ever loss to Jamaica in World Cup qualifying, failed to highlight the “proactive” approach that Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann promised: Active, flowing football with players demonstrating a bit of daring and creativity.
After the 2-1 road loss to Honduras the knives were out. The questions surrounding Klinsmann’s tactical acumen were lurking right below the surface like Sean Connery’s pinged boat in “The Hunt for Red October”. This writer questioned the team’s rediness. The team’s ability to score in the run of play was virtually non-existent unless your name was Clint Dempsey and a sense that this team was as stagnant as it was in the last stages of the Bob Bradley era was felt by many a US fan who were left longing for a return of a certain Mr. Donovan, at that time on some Bruce Wayne type self-discovery/spiritual journey in Cambodia.
By the time an article, quoting unnamed sources and anonymous players, threw serious shade on Klinsmann’s coaching style, credentials and abilities appeared in The Sporting News, US fans were looking at the upcoming crucial matches Costa Rica and Mexico with some dread.
But that article seemed to pull the team together, rather than apart. They survived Costa Rica winning 1-0 in a match that featured a bizarre snowstorm and the iconic snow afro of Jermaine Jones. They then went to Estadio Azteca without Carlos Bocanegra, without Landon Donovan, without an injured Tim Howard and with a makeshift backline; yet still gutted out a 0-0 draw with El Enemigo, only the second time they’ve escaped Mexico with a point (1997’s “Golden Point” was the other).
To be sure it was all hard work and determination and very little proactive football.
But what was apparent was that the Belief, the first step of the Process, which hadn’t been seen since the first 20 minutes of the 2011 Gold Cup Final, was back.
That Belief seemed to disappear earlier this month when the US got shellacked by Belgium 4-2 in a friendly match that wasn’t anywhere near as close at the score might indicate. But it returned in a mighty way at RFK against Germany a few days later. It all clicked that day. Jozy Altidore who had been mired in what could be mildly described as a “slump” opened the scoring with a brilliant volley. Clint Dempsey and AS Roma’s Michael Bradley were brilliant, the former scoring twice (once after being set up by Jozy). Graham Zusi who provided the cross for Jozy’s goal basically cemented himself on the right side with excellent play throughout. Yes the US took their foot off the pedal defensively and the Germans almost staged a miraculous comeback but the 4-3 win for the US is going to be looked at as a turning point in this World Cup qualifying campaign.
Yes that Germany side was brought to you by the letter “B” as they were missing players from Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund who were vying for the UEFA Champions League Title (shout out to Gus Johnson, keep at it, you’re getting there). But no one was mentioning the letter B after they ran over Ecuador a few days earlier, a team which is currently in 3rd place in the South American qualifying table.
The bigger point is this: that match is where Belief begat the next stage in the Process: Execution. And Execution is what was largely on display in these last 3 qualifiers. The “proactive” approach is starting to pay dividends. Jozy Altidore has now scored in 4 straight matches. The midfield is patient in possession and providing him with service. Clint Dempsey continues to be influential in so many phases of the match. Michael Bradley’s nickname in Italy is “The General” but for me, he’s The BAWSE. Players like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson seem to understand their roles are playing them well. Eddie Johnson found the back of the net with a great finish against Panama. Though shaky at times, the center back pairing of MLS players Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler is growing.
But let’s not get to ahead of ourselves. The Process is far from complete. The upcoming Gold Cup, the August friendly against Bosnia and the qualifiers in September will begin the Period of Consolidation.
With apologies to Panama, a depleted Honduras and a Jamaican side that’s already fired their coach, The Squad is supposed to beat those teams.
The next two matches in September, away to Costa Rica(where, US has not only never won but also, never looked good) e and at home against El Enemigo (who may be in a precarious position of their own) will be where The Squad demonstrates whether familiarity with the Execution portion of the Process is truly entrenched. Four points from those two qualifying matches and the US should qualify for Brazil 2014.
But don’t get it twisted: The Process isn’t about qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
The Process is about what we do when we get there.
It’s not enough to qualify.
It’s not enough to gain the Round of 16.
The Process is about establishing ourselves as a serious footballing nation. To that end, nothing short of the Quarterfinals will do.
Up until about a month ago, the US team under Klinsmann had delivered little to make the faithful (let alone anyone else) believe that the US was taking the steps necessary to be a real player next year. Now, that vision seems more real.
The Belief and the Execution seem more real again.
The Process is back on track.
The Period of Consolidation will hopefully begin to answer the questions of how to reintegrate oft injured Stuart Holden and Bruce Wayne er…Landon Donovan back into the team. The Period of Consolidation will hopefully settle the question of our inconsistent back line, capable of solid partnerships and cover but prone to lapses of concentration. The Period of Consolidation is where we will see if Klinsmann can consistently prepare his team for greater challenges.
I like the progression the US has shown in recent months.
But the Process is far from finished.
There is work to be done.