Jurgen Klinsmann sensed momentum even before his team—sparked by an oft-injured striker, an oft-overlooked playmaker and a teenager who’s coming along faster than even he probably predicted—thumped Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night in Florida.
Winning the game and the group, one of three in CONCACAF’s semifinal stage of World Cup qualifying, meant kicking off the final round in November with two of the toughest, highest-profile tests on the schedule. There’s no easing in when you’ve got arch-rival Mexico at home and then a trip to Costa Rica, where the U.S. national team has lost seven straight games dating back nearly 25 years. You’ve got to hit the ground running. And even before Tuesday’s victory, Klinsmann intended to do just that.
“We badly want to win this game,” he said Monday, knowing there was next to no chance the Americans would be knocked out with a loss or draw. “We want to finish first in our group in order to get straight into a big one in the Hexagonal.”
Klinsmann has always had a “bring ‘em on” mentality, but this may have been more than bravado. There’s been a resurgence in this team since the March loss in Guatemala. It isn’t necessarily easy to pinpoint, but it’s not difficult to sense. The seeds may have been planted over the winter, when Klinsmann loosened the reins during January camp and gave the players a bit more leeway and ownership of their national team experience.
The U.S. then stumbled badly in Guatemala City, sure, but it typically doesn’t get through the semifinal round unscathed and it rebounded in emphatic fashion (Columbus came to the rescue again) with a 4-0 win four days later. Then came the Copa América Centenario run, which started with a loss to Colombia that looks like it did more good than harm. The us-against-the-world mentality forged by that defeat in Santa Clara strengthened bonds within the team and helped carry it to the semifinals.
Despite finishing fourth, Klinsmann praised his players and said they deserved to keep their places ahead of this month’s qualifiers. Injury and suspension impacted those plans. But that, similar to the Colombia loss, may have been a soccer blessing in disguise.
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Klinsmann has his core, like every national team coach. But over the past year, the depth supporting that core has improved. Compare the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup roster with the team in contention to star the Hex. Jozy Altidore is healthy and in form. Sacha Kljestan, who earned his first international start in more than two years on Tuesday and had two goals and two assists across both qualifiers, may be the central playmaking foil to Michael Bradley that Klinsmann has been struggling to find. Christian Pulisic seems to be the real deal. Yes, it was St. Vincent and Trinidad, but the soon-to-be-18-year-old is also on Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League squad and seemed to have no trouble finding the ball or figuring out what to do with it in Jacksonville.
In Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Steve Birnbaum, Kellyn Acosta and others, there are players on the core’s edge who are more promising than their counterparts from earlier in Klinsmann’s tenure. Veterans like Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Alejandro Bedoya, Kyle Beckerman and perhaps even Dempsey–once he’s healthy–are being pushed. That’s exactly what Klinsmann has wanted. Meanwhile, young men in foreign leagues like Paul Arriola, Julian Green, Emerson Hyndman, Lynden Gooch and Matt Miazga whet the appetite.
During the Copa, Klinsmann sounded like a man who had turned the corner.
“Over time, we always said we want to move this program to another level. I think we did that over time,” he said. “Overall, I think our work speaks for itself. The coaching staff, what we did over the last five years is simply outstanding … What is satisfying is the players, they enjoy themselves. They bought into it already a long time ago, but over time it has to show obviously in results.”
That was before the blowout loss to Argentina in the semifinals. The U.S. didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Messi and Co. and as Klinsmann said during that same monologue, “There will be always setbacks, always here and there some losses.”
The U.S. has found its form before under Klinsmann but hasn’t always handled it with much dexterity. He lauded his team’s advancement from a difficult group at the 2014 World Cup and the subsequent close call against Belgium, but then won only two games over the next seven months. Everyone was feeling good about themselves after the friendly wins over Netherlands and Germany in June 2015. Then came the Gold Cup disaster. And then there was the thud at this summer’s Copa América. It wasn’t that the U.S. lost to Argentina. It’s that it didn’t manage to take a single shot.
So here we are again, at a moment of momentum. It will be Klinsmann’s job to nurture it through the not-so-marquee October friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand, and the players’ responsibility to maintain the verve and confidence evident over the past week. (And again, while St. Vincent and Trinidad aren’t exactly world beaters, the U.S. was struggling last year just to pass the ball.) Good results against Mexico and Costa Rica and November would put the Americans firmly on the path to the 2018 World Cup. And there’s plenty falling into place.
While the U.S. appears to be on the up, Mexico may have lost a bit of its 2015 swagger. Injuries, manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s tinkering, that brutal 7-0 Copa loss to Chile and the scoreless draw against visiting Honduras on Tuesday night could conspire to plant a seed of doubt in El Tri ahead of another trip to Columbus. The showdown comes at a good time for the U.S. It falls during a brisk part of the calendar and at a point when the entire roster is in-season.
“When you talk about big games, for us there are none bigger than Mexico. When you talk about the next few months, the chance to play Mexico at home in November to start the Hex, that makes for a big night. I think that’s something we’d all look forward to,” Bradley told reporters this week. “November is also a good time for our group just in terms of the schedule, right? The MLS guys are fit and sharp at the end of their season and the European guys are well into their season and have gotten into a good rhythm of playing games. So I think in all ways it could set up well.”
The U.S. has earned six points out of the first two games of the Hex only once, and that came back in 2001. The opposition this time, especially the trip to Costa Rica, make a perfect start unlikely. But there was no easy schedule available—finishing second to Trinidad would have sealed a November visit to Honduras—so what matters is heading into the tough games in good form.
After a brutal 2015, the U.S. national team is feeling good about itself. There’s talent emerging or returning and evidence that Klinsmann has done more over the past 10 months to put his players in position to succeed on the day. Instead of feeling like months are needed to prepare for the Hex, the U.S. probably would like to kick it off next week. It’ll have to wait a couple months instead. But in Columbus, the Americans will have El Tri right where—and when—they want them.