Don't look now, but the US National Team is on the rise.
On the strength of some excellent performances during World Cup qualification, the United States has risen to 15th in the latest FIFA rankings table. The team hasn't enjoyed this sort of recognition since just before the start of the 2006 World Cup, when FIFA deemed them worthy of fourth place in the rankings.
Just over ten years ago in the aftermath of the 1998 World Cup, American fans would have never thought this sort of success would be possible. The US had just turned in one of the more embarrassing efforts in World Cup history.
On the heels of a surprising run in 1994 that saw the team make the knockout rounds thanks to an upset over Colombia, the US failed to make any noise in 1998. Well, unless you consider a late Brian McBride goal against Iran a noteworthy accomplishment. I don't.
Flash forward to 2002, when the US turned in a very respectable World Cup outing, losing to eventual runners-up Germany in the knockout stages. Expectations were beginning to run high, and justifiably so. The US had begun dominating play in CONCACAF and had scored a massive upset with their 3-2 victory over Portugal in South Korea.
Following their Cinderella 2002 run, the US continued their meteoric rise towards international respectability thanks in large part to the coaching of Bruce Arena. They dominated CONCACAF qualifying leading up to Germany 2006 and rose to No. 4 in the world.
Never mind that such a high rating was undeserved for a country that had accomplished nothing outside of its own confederation. They kept racking up wins against inferior competition and probably lost touch with reality a little bit when it came to self-assessment.
We all know what happened during the 2006 World Cup. The US was immediately exposed as overrated against a superior Czech Republic team. A fifth-minute goal by Jan Koller deflated the Americans and set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
The crowning achievement for the Yanks in 2006 was the fact that they were the only team to take a point from Italy during the tournament.
Poor coaching and players who didn't live up to the promise they had showed in the years after 2002 proved to be America's demise in Germany. Bruce Arena was fired and the USSF began courting Jurgen Klinsmann. He refused, and Bob Bradley was brought in.
Bradley was originally thought by most to be a glorified interim coach until the US could land a bigger fish. Only problem is, Bradley didn't cooperate. He got results immediately, and aside from an ill-fated foray into the 2007 Copa America, has maintained a remarkably high standard for program.
Now with South Africa 2010 on the horizon, the US is once again on the rise through the world rankings. They've risen five spots since the beginning of 2009 and a strong showing at this summer's Confederations Cup could see them rise even higher. They're also favorites to once again top the CONCACAF standings for World Cup qualifying.
What does all of this success mean?
For one, it means that the US has to officially be considered the top dog in CONCACAF. Mexico, long considered the best team in the region, has fallen into complete disarray. The Sven-Goran Eriksson experiment was an abject failure as Mexico barely squeaked into the final round of qualifying.
They currently occupy the fourth slot in the CONCACAF table, which only guarantees a playoff for a World Cup slot.
Meanwhile, the US has been dominant against the Mexicans, at least on American soil. They continue to string together shutout victories against El Tricolor despite the presence of stars like Rafa Marquez and Giovanni Dos Santos in the Mexican shirt.
Power has shifted in the region and now the US is the standard by which other CONCACAF teams measure themselves.
The Bradley regime has also ushered in a new generation of stars. In the past several years, the US has had to bid farewell to Brian McBride, Brad Friedel and Cobi Jones, among others. Bradley has eased the transition by welcoming his son, Michael, to the ranks, as well as Jozy Altidore, Sacha Kljestan, and Jose Francisco Torres.
The youth movement has been a success. Kljestan had an excellent showing at the Beijing Olympics. Altidore bagged a hat trick against Trinidad and Tobago, and is displaying far more power and speed than any teenager to ever come through the US ranks.
And the younger Bradley parlayed a brilliant stretch at SC Heerenveen into a contract in the Bundesliga.
In fact, Michael Bradley has arguably been the most influential player for the US in the past two years. He offers a defensive and creative presence in midfield that the US hasn't seen before.
All of this success has to come with a caveat, however.
It won't mean anything without a good showing in South Africa next year.
Expectations for the US National Team have risen from "hoping to qualify for the World Cup" to "Anything short of a birth in the knockout rounds could cost you your job."
Sunil Gulati and his cohorts in the USSF desperately want the US to be competitive on the international stage. It's why the team played friendlies against Spain and Argentina last summer, and performed respectably in both matches, only conceding a single goal to the European champions.
All of the good feelings attached to the US team right now are fine and well, but Bradley will need to maintain this success right into South Africa if the program is going to continue growing.
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