SALT LAKE CITY – History has taught us that the United States national team is often at its best when backed into a corner, when belief in the team among the great unwashed drop to low ebb.
It’s been this way going back to Bob Bradley’s days in charge and even before; the days under Jurgen Klinsmann look little different. Players have spoken lately about the loss to Honduras in February, about how the team rallied around it, fueled by the in-house heat generated that night in San Pedro Sula.
Some of the same key figures (Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley most notably) were stuck in the Confederations Cup mud four years ago. They fell hard to Brazil (3-0) top open the tourney, and that was three losses in four overall. Consternation rose to crescendo status.
But the telling response came in a huge win over Egypt, setting the stage for a signature win over mighty Spain to gain a spot in the Confeds Cup final.
The team is at its best when realization kicks in that ever ball must be contested, when every detail must be fretted over. When the U.S. men grind their teeth and dig in. The collective U.S. talent still isn’t at a place where 80 or 90 percent is good enough. They still have to channel that inner mad dog, reaching into the stores of “fighting spirit” and optimism (attributes that at one time were pretty much all the United States had).
Which brings us to tonight’s match in suburban Sandy, just outside Salt Lake City. Things are going just swimmingly for the United States, with Klinsmann’s kids now so well positioned in the reach for Rio.
A centerpiece of Klinsmann’s initiative in 22 months in charge has been the effort to foster consistency, to dislodge the comfort zones and help ensure that nothing is ever taken for granted. We have arrived at the perfect proving ground to demonstrate progress.
Honduras may be wounded, but there is a big belief and spirit within the emerging soccer nation. (Emerging on a performance scale, that is, not in terms of broader regard for the game.) The Catrachos will make Klinsmann’s team work hard tonight – and any momentary loss of focus, any drop in intensity, any wavering in the recent display of good decision making could be punished. And fast.
Backs against the wall? That’s Honduras. The United States is sitting pretty – so let’s see how Klinsmann’s team handles it.
For all the improvement and forward progress lately (and credit for all of it) this is one thing the team has yet to prove it can do under the current man in charge.