Will the real USMNT please stand up?
The United States men's national team is back atop its qualification group after beating Jamaica 1-0 on Tuesday night in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The U.S. benefited from strong performances throughout the pitch, with right-sided midfielder Graham Zusi and right-back Steve Cherundolo especially standing out.
Central midfielder Danny Williams and central defender Geoff Cameron also shined as the U.S. played perhaps its best 45 minutes—a dominant first half in which the Americans hit the woodwork three times without scoring—under manager Jurgen Klinsmann in a competitive match.
And yet the victory came just four days after the U.S. produced one of its poorest performances under Klinsmann, a dour 2-1 loss to Jamaica in Kingston that for a short time seemingly left the Americans' World Cup qualifying hopes in jeopardy.
In truth, it's been that kind of year for the U.S. Impressive friendly wins over Italy, Mexico and Scotland have been tempered by disappointing results against Jamaica, Guatemala (both in World Cup qualifying) and Canada (in a friendly).
So which U.S. is the real U.S.?
Klinsmann can take several positives from the Americans' last two qualifying matches. The most obvious area for appraisal is the midfield, the composition of which saw much turnover in the two matches against Jamaica.
Klinsmann's experiment with three defensive midfielders—Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman in the same lineup—in the first match failed. Edu and Beckerman lost their starting spots, and after a poor overall performance, Beckerman's place on the national team is now in doubt.
Jones retained his starting spot in the rematch, as Zusi moved to the right, Jose Torres played on the left and Danny Williams covered the holding role. The results were overwhelmingly positive, as the U.S. dominated Jamaica throughout the first half and all four midfielders performed well.
Zusi was especially strong on the right. His movement and crosses troubled Jamaica throughout the first half, and he also nearly scored. Williams excelled in the holding role, while Torres and Jones had solid, if not overly influential, matches.
Behind Zusi at right-back, Cherundolo might have been the most important U.S. attacking player in the first half. His width and crosses on the right opened up Jamaica and served as the keys to the U.S. attack.
Alongside Cherundolo in defense, Geoff Cameron turned in another strong match at center back. The U.S. kept a clean sheet in the rematch, and beyond the two free-kick goals Jamaica scored in the opener, limited the Reggae Boyz's chances over two matches.
Up top, Herculez Gomez scored in the rematch, his fifth goal for the U.S., and again repaid the growing faith Klinsmann has in him.
Jozy Altidore was anonymous in Friday's match and played an ineffective cameo role as a substitute in the rematch. He's having trouble recreating his club form—four goals already this season with AZ Alkmaar in Holland—at the international level.
Zusi, Williams and—to a lesser extent—Torres and Jones excelled together in the midfield, but Beckerman looked out of place and out of his depth. Don't be surprised if Beckerman isn't called up for the next round of qualifiers in October.
Some of Klinsmann's decisions over the past week were highly questionable.
Playing three defensive midfielders in the first match left the U.S. without width and caused the Yanks trouble holding the ball. In the rematch, none of Klinsmann's substitutions worked well, and the U.S. looked nervous while closing out its tight victory.
Clint Dempsey, meanwhile, played all 180 minutes of the two matches despite not having played a single club match this season. Before Friday, his last competitive fixture came in June, and his lack of match sharpness and fitness showed in the second half Tuesday.
All those positives and negatives collectively produced a loss, a win and three points, leaving the U.S. atop the Group A standings but level on points with both Jamaica and Guatemala.
As he plays more matches with his new club Tottenham Hotspur, Dempsey will regain match sharpness and settle into a midseason groove. His continued presence should be boosted by the return of key veterans Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley to the lineup.
Both Donovan and Bradley missed the two qualifying matches with injuries, and both were, well, missed. Presumably both will return for October's matches against Antigua and Barbuda (away) and Guatemala (home), but at 30, Donovan is nearing the age at which the U.S. must start thinking about permanent replacements.
Zusi performed well on the right side of midfield Tuesday night, and he'll obviously remain in the national team picture for the time being.
When Donovan and Bradley return, and with Dempsey in midseason form, the U.S. should be at full strength heading into the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. Without two of the team's biggest stars, evaluating the Americans over the last two matches is difficult.
This team's identity probably lies somewhere in between the lows of Kingston and the highs of Columbus. For the sake of qualification, let's hope the truth lives closer to Columbus.