The World Cup qualifying campaign of the U.S. soccer team gained a big boost this week from a 1-0 victory at home over Costa Rica and a 0-0 draw against Mexico. Although we are still early in the campaign, qualification seems likely.
The U.S. need only finish third in a six team group to advance, and a fourth place finish would enable us to qualify if we can then beat New Zealand. As the members of our group are Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, and Panama, third place does not seem like a tall order.
But the U.S. would like to accomplish more than mere qualification. Ideally, it would like to develop into a world class team, instead of a group of grinders capable of competing on equal terms with the world’s elite sides, not simply of pulling of the odd upset against them. That was the point of firing Bob Bradley in favor of German legend Jurgen Klinsmann.
Measured against this aspiration, the U.S. came up short in the Costa Rica and Mexico matches.
The former match will long be remembered because it was played in a blizzard. The field was already covered with a thin layer of snow at kickoff time, with much more snow forecasted. The referee should never have allowed the match to commence.
In fairness, though, the field somehow remained playable for almost the full 90 minutes. Players did not slip and the ball ran fairly true.
The problem was visibility. Players had obvious difficulty seeing 25 yards ahead, making it tough to pick out the proper pass. And the officials were hard pressed to see far enough ahead to make the proper calls, which probably explains why they missed an obvious foul in the penalty box by Costa Rica in the first half.
Strangely, the Costa Ricans seemed to handle the cold and snow better than their North American counterparts. The U.S. dominated the early going and produced a goal to show for it. But in the second half, it was all Costa Rica. At this stage of our soccer history, we shouldn’t be relying on backs-to-the-wall defending to defeat Costa Rica in a home game in wintry Colorado.
Even top sides will require that sort of defending against Mexico at the legendary Azteca Stadium. So on paper, the 0-0 draw seems impressive. After all, it represents only the second time the U.S. has avoided defeat in a Cup qualifier in Mexico.
But we were lucky to gain the draw. The referee denied Mexico one super-obvious penalty kick and a second that seemed clear enough. Reverse these two decisions, and see if the ESPN commentators are still raving about a heroic U.S. effort. Reverse the unusually poor play of slumping Mexico in and around their penalty box, and the match could easily have turned into a rout.
The good news from the two matches, in addition to the bottom line, is the emergence of three center backs of seemingly good quality: Gonzalez (the pick of the three), Goodson, and Besler. The bad news is that without Landon Donovan, who is taking a break from competitive soccer, the U.S. seems to have regressed as an attacking force.
In sum, the Klinsmann era U.S. team looks a lot like its predecessors. That’s not really surprising. The characteristics of a national team usually, though not always, persist over time. But considering the size of the U.S. and the extent to which young Americans play the sport, we should have pulled further ahead of our regional rivals, Mexico excepted, than seems to be the case.