For a few minutes on Tuesday, it finally came together. And by a few minutes, I mean almost a full half. Fourteen months of promises that we’d see a different kind of soccer started to manifest into real, tangible results. The emphasis on sharper attacking that had come to the forefront after mixed performances in qualifying finally took hold. From the first movement, when Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson hinted they might be anticipating instead of reacting to each others’ movements, the U.S. Men’s National Team started to transcend the rhetoric.
Given what happened five minutes later (Carlos Ruiz putting Guatemala in front), you can understand why the attack didn’t steal headlines. After coming face-to-face with the reality of elimination, advancing was the big story, not the improvement. In the big picture, however, a huge step forward for Jurgen Klinsmann’s rebuild is a bigger than the qualification of a team that’s habitually in The Hex.
Perhaps it was the frustrations of St. John’s. Maybe three days of hearing their coach’s admonitions sank in. Maybe the team just got tired of know-it-all bloggers chirping. Whatever happened between Friday and Tuesday, it led to a U.S. attack that finally showed what the future might hold.
That future is effort, the type that Herculez Gomez used to win the corner kick ahead of the States’ opening goal. That future is decisiveness, as we saw from Eddie Johnson in creating the second goal. It’s the ability to get people forward, like Michael Bradley did on the third goal. It’s executing the little things in those final, most important moments at the end of attacks, as we saw from Clint Dempsey all night. And perhaps most crucially (as it concerns Klinsmann’s desire to change the foundations), it’s quick, progressive, decisive play throughout the team. Let the actions match the words.
It’s not as if we’ve never seen those qualifies before. But we haven’t seen them used as the team’s foundation. We haven’t seen them leveraged so effectively, so exclusively. Last night U.S. soccer fans were given reason to think a new, more proactive era is close. At least, it’s closer than it looked on Friday.
There are a couple of caveats, though. Since Eddie Johnson was put in the starting lineup, the U.S. has been playing more long balls forward. That first movement I alluded to above? It started with a long ball targeting Dempsey, not that playing a occasional long ball an anathema to what Klinsmass is trying to do. Part of the reason the new coach has been so discouraging of such tactics is the team’s previous dependence on them. It’s hard to claim your being a revolutionary if you turn your head to the ills of the old regime. In this transition phase (perhaps before the U.S.’s backs were against the wall), Klinsmann couldn’t walk that middle ground. In his ideal world, though, he’ll want all weapons at his disposal.
The other caveat that’s already being leaned on, one I completely discard, is the opposition. It’s only Guatemala, you’ll read. It’s not Mexico, as if we need to be reminded that competition in third round qualifying is not the same as The Hex’s.
The reminders need to go the other way. Everybody is aware Guatemala is not an elite soccer nation, but we’re also aware that the U.S.’s changes are a process, something we’ve been reminded of by the series of mixed performances throughout the round. Nobody’s expecting the States to become Germany in 14 months, which is why Tuesday shouldn’t be discounted. If, at next summer’s Gold Cup, the U.S. is still having problems with the Antiguas and Guatemalas in the world, break out the told you sos.
For now, look at that first half and see the future. At least consider it a proof of concept. That performance needs to become the rule rather than the exception, but for one night, the team showed it’s possible. That’s progress.