Looking back, the bombshell might not have cut as deep as we thought. In fact, amid all the controversy and pressure, and as a potential date with history approaches, this United States men's national team might be finding its identity.
For credit, look no further than "Snowmageddon."
Less than a week ago, a ground-shaking story in the Sporting News stunned the American soccer community. Current U.S. national team players, speaking on condition of anonymity, leveled intense criticism at coach Jurgen Klinsmann, including gripes about Klinsmann's tactics and a perceived (and apparently unwelcome) quest to turn the Yanks into some kind of North American custodians of a Brazilian-like beautiful game.
The revelations weren't just troubling, they came at a poor time. Sitting at the bottom of the table in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, the U.S. was already facing pressure to win on home soil. In the form of anonymous comments, the U.S. apparently also had controversy and in-fighting.
Then came the snow.
Playing in a driving snowstorm that dumped between eight and 10 inches of snow on Denver (via Denver Post), the U.S. defeated Costa Rica 1-0 on Friday to climb into second place of a wacky hexagonal group. What's more, at times the Americans, possibly distracted from high expectations, tactical pressures and off-field issues, actually looked like they were enjoying themselves.
Asked what the team could take from the game, forward Herculez Gomez said (per USSoccer.com): “Unity, I think, would be a big one. When the going got tough, we stuck together. We didn’t point fingers, we didn’t blame, we were intense with each other and we knew that it would take all of us to get the good out of this.”
Unity by means of snowy chaos and brought about following a round of in-fighting—for this group of U.S. players, it's the glorious contradiction that is coming to define them. Nearly two years into Klinsmann's reign, a definition of the team's identity remains elusive, but with each game, themes are emerging.
For the snow-infused breakthrough in Denver, there's also the humidity-baked meltdown in Honduras. For the historic wins in Italy or at the Azteca, there's also the program-first loss in Jamaica. At times they show progress in Klinsmann's project to play the beautiful game, but at others—especially Friday in the snow—they produce their best as scrappers.
The team's lineups themselves illustrate the trend as well. Klinsmann has used a different lineup in every game since he took over the U.S. program, sometimes because of tinkering and sometimes because of bad luck and injuries.
But amid the disorder and contradiction, the search for balance between scrappiness and the beautiful game, there seems to be a short memory. Negativity hasn't lingered, and all that seems to matter is the present. We saw it after the loss to Jamaica, when the U.S. took care of business against Guatemala, and we saw it again Friday night in Denver.
Appropriately enough, the attitude is reflected best in new captain Clint Dempsey, who's served in the role for all of one game. In Dempsey, the Americans have a leader who cares little about pressure and gets job done, even when it's not pretty. Michael Bradley might have been a better choice in the long run, but for now, Dempsey is precisely what the U.S. needs.
“All the credit goes to the boys. They fought hard tonight," Dempsey said after the Costa Rica match (via USSoccer.com). "It wasn’t the prettiest game but we grinded out a result and got a clean sheet. Now it’s about going off to the next game.”
That next game is the big one, a trip to the Azteca Satdium in Mexico City to face Mexico and the program's past demons. The U.S. has never won a qualifying match in Mexico and until last August had never won any match there. The only other time the Americans have avoided defeat at the Azteca was a 0-0 draw in a World Cup qualifier in 1997.
Once again, the team is facing adversity, and once again, the lineup will be different. With starting goalkeeper Tim Howard and several defenders already missing, midfielder Jermaine Jones is set to miss Tuesday's match through injury. Jones, who performed well in the snow against Costa Rica, announced Sunday that he was returning to his club Schalke 04 in Germany:
Good luck for my boys at Azteca stadium on Tuesday! I am traveling home, my feet is too bad— Jermaine Jones (@Jermainejunior) March 24, 2013
But Jones' injury might just present another chance for the U.S. to show a short memory. The match, meanwhile, could actually be a chance for more history.
With snowy conditions unlikely, the game will present more of a tactical challenge than the one Klinsmann encountered in Denver. But while tactics were among the concerns listed by the anonymous players in last week's Sporting News article, Friday's win might have eased some worries.
“Negativity from who? Whatever goes on the outside, you know inside of our team these group of guys have all the confidence in each other and belief that we can go out there and do our job," said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who filled in for the injured Tim Howard. "We have the support of the coaching staff. I thought (Friday) really showed that."
Mexico will enjoy a home-field advantage of its own playing in the altitude and pollution of Mexico City in front of what promises to be a rowdy crowd. But as intimidating as the atmosphere will be, the hosts enter Tuesday's match with trouble of their own.
El Tri drew 2-2 at home to Honduras last week and remain winless through two hexagonal matches. Strange as it sounds, with so many players injured and reports of in-fighting only a week old, the U.S. might not have a better opportunity to post a historic victory in Mexico City.
To do it, they might have to keep doing what has worked best: Balancing the beautiful with the scrappy while caring nothing for the past.
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