If you follow the United States Men’s National Team closely, ask yourself this question: Are you more or less confident than you were when the World Cup draw was made on December 6, 2013 that the USA will advance from Group G?
Or how about this: How confident were you in the USMNT’s progression to the knockout round of the World Cup before the draw was made?
Back in 2013, the US went on an unprecedented run of success. Between June and September, in friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Jurgen Klinsmann’s team won fifteen out of sixteen games, twelve consecutively.
They won the Gold Cup in a walkover, outscoring their competition 20-4. They notched another “dos a cero” in Columbus in what was the national team’s biggest night on home soil since the 1994 World Cup.
The Americans beat Germany, won the Hex, and saved Mexico. They were ahead of teams like England in the FIFA World Rankings.
That four-month stretch won Jurgen Klinsmann four more years at the helm of the national team before any matches were played in the World Cup, the competition he will be judged on.
It isn’t controversial to say that the June-October stretch of 2013 was one of the best stretches in the history of the US national team.
So what happened?
Two months away from kickoff in Brazil, the Americans are in a precarious position. They’ve endured a tepid and frustrating pre-World Cup stretch, key players are struggling mightily, Klinsmann has fired his top assistant, and divides in the camp appear to have developed.
The goodwill and confidence from 2013 have been drained extensively, and a feeling of doubt seems to linger just under the surface of the national team.
The easiest prognosis for the doubt, of course, is the draw. The USA took a beating.
The Americans got Germany, a title threat, possibly the best team in Europe, and Klinsmann’s country and former team; Portugal, a recent perennial contender with Cristiano Ronaldo, and Ghana, the best African team in the tournament who has knocked the USA out of the last two tournaments.
As if that wasn’t enough, the US got the worst travel schedule of any team in the tournament, with a crucial game in the Amazon rainforest, and no games close to their base in Sao Paulo. Should we mention the distance between the camp and where the US will play their games?
But even before this killer draw, there were signs that everything wasn’t quite going to plan.
In the November 2013 international break, a European-based US team traveled to play Scotland and Austria. Klinsmann’s team labored in Europe, drawing 0-0 with Scotland, and losing to Austria while not scoring a single goal.
The offensive issues had a lot to do with Jozy Altidore.
When Klinsmann turned things around and began the winning streak, Altidore was the key. He broke his scoring duck against Germany, and went on to score in five straight starts for the US. He scored three game winners, and got a sublime hat trick in the come-from-behind win at Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Of course, Altidore was also enjoying top form with his club team in Holland, AZ Alkmaar. But after that summer, Altidore ventured back into the Premier League with Sunderland, possibly the worst suited club in England’s top flight for the American striker. Things went horribly wrong immediately.
Then last week, Altidore was left out of the Sunderland team that traveled to play Tottenham, and instead was dropped to the club’s U21s.
With Sunderland a near sure bet for relegation, Altidore will leave after the season. But for the USA’s World Cup chances, it may be too late. Altidore’s confidence has been hammered, he has no rhythm, and the ordeal of enduring the most miserable season of his professional career has to have affected his morale.
The Americans have been reliant on Altidore to lead their line since 2009, when he was just 20. Nothing has changed. The US doesn’t have a bonafide number two option. Aron Johansson is a quality young player, but he’s totally untested at the top international level.
It’s sink or swim time with Altidore. And that predicament doesn’t inspire confidence right now.
There are other problems. Klinsmann’s European contingent is dwindling – much to his dismay – with key players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returning to MLS, but those European players – starters like Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Tim Howard, and Altidore – put on a horror show in Cyprus against Ukraine in their last outing before the World Cup roster is announced.
The Ukraine game was played under difficult circumstances, but because of MLS’ summer schedule, the full national team hasn’t gotten together since the last World Cup qualifier against Panama.
The MLS players beat South Korea in a fairly pedestrian game 2-0, and went up 2-0 against Mexico last Wednesday night before throwing away the lead.
In many ways, two squads have been established. One with MLS players, and one with European players.
The next time everyone gets together will be for the first World Cup warm-up at Candlestick Park against Azerbaijan.
That will be a seven-month stretch without the entire team playing together once. Not good.
Klinsmann’s tactics seem to be in flux more and more. He went to a 4-4-2 diamond for the first time in almost a year against Mexico. There were upsides – Michael Bradley dominated – but is Klinsmann thinking about making the switch from his 4-2-3-1 for the World Cup? Should there be some facts to back this question?
Does that mean Jermaine Jones plays a holding role like Kyle Beckerman did against Mexico? Can Jones do that?
What about Landon Donovan? Klinsmann benched him against Mexico, and that’s not the first time the coach has sat the US’ best ever player down. Klinsmann yanked Donovan after a half against Jamaica last October.
Between Donovan’s sabbatical, his pointed comments about the captaincy, Klinsmann consistently not naming Donovan as part of the core of his team, and the recent benching, Donovan’s role going into the World Cup is totally unclear.
Will he start? It’s anyone’s guess. But the USA needs Donovan to be happy and play well. He’s still a talent and big-game player unlike anyone else the Americans have.
As for the defense, Matt Besler is probably the only locked-in starter after Omar Gonzalez’s nightmare second half against Mexico. There are four contenders to start at right back, and none exactly inspire total confidence.
Klinsmann fired his top assistant and reshuffled his coaching staff in the last two weeks. He’s rewriting the script just hours before show time.
The US is struggling. They have two months to get it right.