Friday, October 18, 2013

Ascendancy It Is

I kept telling myself "it was only a friendly. It was only a friendly."

On two occasions this summer, after the U.S. Men's soccer team's big win over Germany and its shocking come-from-behind triumph over Bosnia-Herzegovina, I reminded myself of just that. After all, in the midst of UEFA qualifying, those countries may have treated the games as warm-ups, an opportunity to allow their reserve squad players a taste of international action.

But the mere fact that the Americans won both matches, in which they likely would have collapsed two years ago, or even earlier this year (remember the game against Belgium a week before the one against Germany?) made me think that something big was brewing with the national team.

Back in January, I wrote about how this was a cross-roads year for both the U.S. Men's and Women's National teams, as well as women's professional soccer in the U.S. Feast or famine; make or break. A year of ascendancy or disaster? is the way I put it.

While the Woman's national team has done just fine under new coach Tom Sermanni, and the jury is still very much out with regard to the new women's league, the answer for the Men's team is clear: ascendancy it is.

The improvement shown against two of the best squads in Europe in the friendlies was borne out in the remaining matches of CONCACAF qualifying as the Americans, after a serious misstep in Costa Rica (which was clearly the second best team in this Hex), steamrolled Mexico and Jamaica and then stunned poor Panama, on the cusp of kicking Mexico to the qualifying curb, with two extra time goals in the final qualifying match.

Graham Zusi celebrates his game tying goal in Panama, the dagger
to the heart of its qualifying hopes. (photo from

While some pundits wondered post-match about the wisdom of pursuing an in-game strategy that kept Mexican hopes alive in the World Cup (with their loss to Costa Rica in the final match and what seemed like a imminent win by Panama over the U.S. Panama would have traveled to New Zealand and back for a playoff and Mexico would have been sent home to lick its considerable psychological and monetary wounds), I'm glad that the team and Coach Jurgen Klinsmann saw fit to play hard and go for a win in their last competitive match before next summer's World Cup.

And least we forget, while Klinsmann is now being hailed as a savant and savior, it wasn't too long ago that his leadership and tactics were being seriously questioned. But first with those friendlies, then with the wins over Mexico and Panama, Klinsmann has show a deft touch with substitutions and the ability to get the most out of his players, especially those that he does not put in the starting 11.

Klinsmann's leadership strengths discredit the idea that the U.S. should have "thrown" the Panama game. That thought is completely contrary to the way that Klinsmann is going about the job of building a different soccer psyche in this country, and that is not the lesson that he would have wanted his players in Panama City to take away from that match.

Instead, the Americans flew back to the U.S. full of confidence, convinced that they can win any match, at any time, with any 11 players on the pitch.  Whether that will bear out depends a lot on what countries it draws into its group in the World Cup (and it might get ugly)(you could waste hours keeping track of all the possible permutations using the draw simulator here). Nonetheless, that confidence will be there when they step on the pitch, somewhere in Brazil against an unknown opponent in June 2014. I can't wait. And I don't think they can either.


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