What a difference one goal can make.
Jozy Altidore’s shot in the 16th minute on Friday night against Costa Rica bounced onto Clint Dempsey’s foot, and the Tottenham star passed it into the net. That was the only goal the United States produced in two matches against the Ticos and Mexico.
However, that one successful strike has pushed away the storm clouds that were gathering, and the sun is now shining on Jurgen Klinsmann and his team.
Think back to Friday, before the United States faced Costa Rica on the planet from Empire Strikes Back. This was not a cheery time for American soccer fans.
The team had lost its first game in the Hexagonal to Honduras. A mutiny started forming in the week leading up to the match, with several players anonymously bashing Klinsmann, according to Brian Straus of Sporting News. In addition, the team’s centre-backs were dropping like flies, leaving a group of inexperienced players to lead the back line.
What's more, Tim Howard, the United States' rock between the goalposts, was also out with a back injury.
When the squad were literally walking around on ice in Colorado on Friday night, they were also metaphorically stepping on thin ice. A defeat would have amplified the story about players criticizing Klinsmann, and the team would have taken two losses into Azteca.
However, the Americans stood strong in the back, and Brad Guzan proved to be an incredible understudy. Keeping a clean sheet in a snowstorm is extremely impressive.
With that being said, even after the 1-0 victory, there was still plenty of doubt. Costa Rica appealed the result of the match—and were later denied—and a showdown with Mexico was still looming.
If the United States went to Mexico City and flopped, it would have been left to marinate in its own disappointment until the next qualifier in June. A slim victory over Costa Rica under controversial circumstances would not have created enough optimism to keep the mood surrounding the team from turning sour.
However, that crucial point from the scoreless draw has put the wind at the Americans’ backs. With away matches against Honduras and Mexico out of the way, the team is also running downhill for the remainder of the Hexagonal.
Qualifying for Brazil 2014 is now very likely, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Getting to Brazil is the big-picture goal, but there were so many little victories for the U.S. in this game. The team is unbeaten at Azteca under Klinsmann. It has found a handful of key contributors (Guzan, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi), who only received a spot in the lineup due to injury. More than that, the team's response to an adverse situation was superb.
While the team only produced one goal in 180 minutes, these results took guts. The United States had every reason to fold while in the snow against Costa Rica, and even more motivation to collapse against Mexico at Azteca, as it had done so many times in the past.
It didn’t. The confidence the squad has gained from pulling out these results have turned its qualifying campaign from a disaster to a delight.
When the team gets onto the plane headed for Brazil next summer, it will think back fondly about these past five days.