Neil W. Blackmon
Prior to the Belgium match, Jon Levy wrote that this summer for the United States Men’s National Team would be divided into two acts, and that in either of these acts, the US would have a chance for a definitive, signature moment, or even a collective grouping of moments, where the tone for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil would be set, for better or worse. At a stadium the local Browns fans call “The Factory of Sadness”, the United States looked as if it would begin that summer, and its first act, a series of two brutally difficult friendlies and three critical World Cup qualifiers, on a negative note that beckoned downturn. The Yanks fell 4-2 to European upstart Belgium, and looked every bit as outclassed as the FIFA-ranking disparity between the clubs suggested in the defeat. Suddenly, a date with Germany, where the US was to officially celebrate its Centennial as a footballing nation, looked like a horrendous idea.
The Friday evening prior to the Germany match, once again under fire from media outlets throughout the country, whose increased scrutiny represents both a positive– the growth and importance of the game in this country, and a negative– the American tendency to advance expectation beyond the realm of realism– Jurgen Klinsmann went out to dinner with his old lieutenant, Joachim Low. The dinner was described as very emotional, and what was said, beyond that description, remains between the US manager and his German successor, but what is certain is that life has been positively rosy for the American manager and his side ever since.
First, the United States poured in four (three, and a goalkeeping gift that would make Robert Green look every bit the part of Guantanamo Marine) goals and defeat Joachim Low’s team 4-3. Jozy Altidore, on hunger strike internationally while feasting like John Daly at a country club Sunday buffet for club, finally scored a goal for Jurgen Klinsmann, whose relationship with the young Floridian forward had grown increasingly strained. Altidore added a goal and an assist on a divine Clint Dempsey goal, and although it was just a friendly, there was a collective sigh of relief from US fans and media members alike.
The US carried the momentum from that victory to Kingston, where they played beautifully for twenty minutes, tentatively (being kind) for a little more than an hour and appeared prepare to regress to the Klinsmann mean– score an early goal, look splendid, stop dictating proceedings in the midfield, concede an equalizer, leave supporters shaking heads. This time, however, things were different. Brad Evans, thrust into a right back role created by Sigi Schmid and Jurgen Klinsmann in a telephone conversation, found his way in the Jamaican area in stoppage time, received the ball, turned, and deftly fired it past Donovan Ricketts and into the net, sending pubs and living rooms across America and on German military-base installments into delirium. It was the latest stoppage time goal for the United States in World Cup qualifying history, and it sent the US back home with to soccer-crazed Seattle with three points, a warm welcome and a new hero, who, of course, is the Prince of the PBR-drinking, Seattle Sounders supporting paupers. Storybook stuff, and all of it only nine days removed from the doom and gloom of being outclassed and thoroughly handled by Belgium to begin the summer.
In Seattle, a Panama side that had yet to lose in qualifying and had kicked, clawed and prodded the US in its previous two competitive-level matches met the suddenly confident Americans, but they didn’t seem particularly fazed in the build-up. Panama captain Felipe Baloy, fresh off a match where he swallowed Javier Hernandez whole, said the expectation for his group was “three points,” and anyone who reviewed the match tactically had more than belief that was possible. They had empirical evidence. Despite the US victories over Germany and Jamaica, the Americans had not shown they could consistently play the type of attacking, proactive, dictate proceedings football Jurgen Klinsmann had promised when he to0k the job, and a date with Panama, CONCACAF’s best defensive side from a tactical perspective, looked to be on-paper the worst sort of exercise for seeking attacking consistency. Further complicating matters, two players largely responsible for the beginnings of a turnaround in the American attack, the midfield-space creating, service-providing Graham Zusi, and the marauding, ball-winning, late box-running Jermaine Jones, would miss the Panama match, with a yellow card and a concussion, respectively. A victory, most believed, would be had the old-fashioned way, with grit and guile and unattractive football.
Shows you what we know. For whatever reason (and he deserves more than a fair share of credit for the result), Jorge Dely Valdes decided to change Panama’s tactics, pressuring the ball constantly early in the match and utilizing his primary distributor of the ball, both in possession and on against the run-of-play counters, Amilcar Henriquez, to follow Michael Bradley around the pitch. The ball pressure didn’t work: Panama’s players didn’t know what to do– this wasn’t their meat and potatoes. Without ball pressure, Geoff Cameron, deputizing for Jermaine Jones, defied this writer’s expectations and played his finest match in an American shirt, positioning himself impeccably to disrupt any of Panama’s action through the center and distributing the ball to attacking positions with a guile not typically seen of a Stoke City field player- let alone a defender. Eddie Johnson, playing on (a slip and slide version of) his home field, gave the United States the width it feared it would lack without Graham Zusi, and Jozy Altidore, yes, the two-weeks prior maligned forward, scored a breathtaking goal early in the match when Henriquez, who had admirably tracked MB 90 for half an hour, lost his man and couldn’t decide whether to stay with Bradley or follow the deep-dropping, havoc-inducing Clint Dempsey Tottenham supporters will tell you they’ve seen this Clint Dempsey before, influencing the game with brilliant off-ball movements and allowing Gareth Bale the space, and time he needs to be a world class weapon.
The goal itself was an onside version of Clint Dempsey’s 2006 World Cup strike against Ghana. The result- a deserved 1-0 lead in a game the United States grabbed by the throat from the whistle– was a defiant “Si, se puede” from the United States in response to anyone who thought the Americans were not capable of tactical and technical superiority against a highly-organized opponent. What was more, unlike countless previous affairs under Jurgen Klinsmann, the Americans maintained their stranglehold on the match. Geoff Cameron continued to clamp down the midfield and win ball-after-ball as Panama ratcheted up its pressure, searching for an equalizer. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley continued to run circles around the Panama midfield, and did so quite often with 4 v. 2 and 5 v. 2 advantages in the midfield zone, courtesy of Eddie Johnson’s movement on the touchline, an effective level of support from Fabian Johnson, and the remarkable work-rate of Jozy Altidore, who from the opening whistle found the game through his movement, and in so doing, dragged Felipe Baloy to uncomfortable positions on the pitch, rendering his game far less effective. Proceedings continued in this promising way until eight minutes into the second half, when Geoff Cameron won the ball in midfield and quickly played a thoughtful ball to a streaking Eddie Johnson, who, much-maligned throughout his career for his concrete-slab first touch, took the ball down brilliantly and finished, giving the US a 2-0 lead that would not be threatened again until late, when Panama brought on a second forward. By then, it was too late, and Tim Howard, not wanting to be left out of the act, made a dynamic save to preserve a clean sheet for the US. It was, without much argument, the most complete footballing performance of the United States under a Jurgen Klinsmann, and given the suspensions, opponent, and stakes, a sure sign of how Klinsmann’s team is making progress and coming together. The atmosphere, which Michael Bradley called “the best crowd I’ve played in front of in the United States without a doubt,” only added to the lovefest. It was a tremendous night for US Soccer.
And that is precisely why Tuesday night’s proceedings at the Rio Tinto in Utah are so critical. If the two friendlies and three qualifiers are the “First Act” of a two-part summer for the United States, the match against a depleted Honduras side in Utah represents both opportunity and peril: the chance to prove a surprise victory over Germany, a tough road victory over Jamaica, and a complete win over Panama were indeed the “turning point” for the United States in the 2014 World Cup cycle. A win means the United States, already on top of the Hex through five matches, and with a game in hand over their tri-colored adversaries to the south, will nearly be able to stamp their passport to Brazil. A defeat, or even a draw, will negate the sudden goodwill of the past two weeks and open the door for the criticisms and “noise in the system” that were nearly at fever pitch less than a month ago. Fair or no, this is life in small sample sizes, the territory occupied by international soccer teams.
This isn’t a US team without warts. That isn’t a particularly harsh statement either– one can count on their right or left hand alone the international sides with limited weaknesses– and one only need look southward to view a team with grander problems at the current moment. What this is, however, is a US team with better depth than four years ago, some complimentary pieces, an improving, gelling back four, led by a grizzled, reborn “war horse” in DaMarcus Beasley, a wave of riches at goalkeeper, a young, tenacious leader in the midfield, a fiery, at times world class captain, and a growing sense of self-belief. All of this without the star of the last decade, Landon Donovan, who will join the summer in “Act Two”, and much at all from a player thought to be a key figure at the beginning of this World Cup cycle, Stu Holden, who warms the belly every time he plays meaningless minutes at the end of a victory but for now, is doing just that- playing meaningless minutes. Point being, there are the makings of a very strong side, and the on-field product is starting to reflect that potential. But it is just a start, and potential is maybe the dirtiest word in sports. It’s the presence of possibility in the absence of accomplishment. And in a summer without a Confederations Cup to give the US a tangible, trophy-type marker of just how far it has come, a draw or defeat Tuesday night means that “potential” will do what potential loves to do, and hit the pause button.
Grant Wahl explored the issue at length here, but one set of comments, by Michael Bradley, outlines the stakes in Utah. “When you talk about being a team that can compete at the highest level, a team that can beat the best teams in the world consistently, a team that can go into a World Cup thinking we’re playing four or five or six games as opposed to three, then this consistency, this maturity, is something that has to improve,” Bradley continued. “We now have a year still before the World Cup, a year that includes important qualifiers to put us in the World Cup. There has been improvement, but there has to be more.” One way to get to the “more” is to win decisively against a depleted opponent Tuesday night. That would be the beginning of something, a true turning point from average to good to “might be great.”
Every team with ambition about greatness has this type of match or these moments, where anything short of a positive result represents a step back, and where any step back brings a whole new host of pitfalls and problems. Nick Saban, whose Alabama teams currently rule the football universe, calls this “the process.”
Bobby Bowden, legendary football coach of Florida State, whose teams finished in the top-five for a decade, called these types of games “Finish the Drill” the games. His theory was simple. You work so hard to prepare and put yourselves in positions to simply have the opportunity to put yourself in another position to be great and achieve. You do that because you have a level of personal and collective “want to”, but then again, so does most everyone you have on the schedule. “The guy that wins,” Bowden said, “the guy that beats the other guy nine times out of ten, even if he’s a bit outmanned, he’s the guy that finishes the drill in practice, not because when he finishes it, well, practice is over, but because he has a short enough memory to remember why the drill matters. He doesn’t get caught up in patting himself on the back and thinking about how good things are going. He’s moving forward, focused on those next sixty minutes.” In soccer, of course, we deal in ninety minute currency. But the lesson is just as poignant, and the sample sizes, the chances to “finish the drill”, are even smaller. Tuesday in Utah the United States gets such an opportunity. And if they finish the drill, they’ll be well on their way to an even bigger opportunity. And that’s progress.