Life comes forward in stages, in bite-sized chunks that eventually congeal into trends. These of course aren’t discernible until after the fact, when the kaleidoscope of choices we’ve made meld into what we call a “past.”
We’ve arrived at this place with the USMNT’s 2013. The year came to a shuddering conclusion in a 1-0 loss to Austria on Tuesday, relegating the boys to club hibernation until next year. World Cup year. So there’s that. But you look back at the year in miniature and you see the wheel turn in varying directions in ways you can’t in the midst of the storm itself. Which is where we come in today.
In hindsight, the senior team’s year can be broken into seasons. Distinct phases in which the USMNT seemed headed for a certain fate before Herr Klinsmann jerked on the reins and the show pony started clopping down a different path.
To wit, 2013, a year unlike any other.
The dark winter
Draw vs. Canada (0-0); Loss vs. Honduras (1-2)
The first two months of 2013 were a fine time for hand-wringing. We couldn’t know it at the time, but listless Canada was just then embarking on a 2013 campaign that even Martinique would eventually find embarrassing. That draw, which you can read about here in more detail than you probably want, seemed to indicate that the team had been outfitted with the shell of Klinsmann’s tactical premise, but the heartbeat was irregular and the footsteps were too soft. It was a horrible game to its core.
Then Honduras, a disastrous start to the Hex with implications reaching beyond simple qualification. Shockingly, Carlos Bocanegra, Captain America, sat on the bench while the relatively untested Omar Gonzalez took his place next to Geoff Cameron. The on-field results were not symbiotic. Now, knowing Omar’s role as we do, this looks like a symbolic toss of the baton. Then? It ignited a firestorm of controversy that exploded into the national consciousness with a Brian Straus article that outlined the developing fissures in the U.S. locker room surrounding the decision to sit Boca. The USMNT’s world was on fire.
The U.S. was in a dark wood, turned around at best and utterly lost at worst. With a loss and an away date against a Mexico side that, at this point, still appeared to be a breakaway CONCACAF favorite, the outlook was bleak. The dark winter had settled in, but for how long was anyone’s guess.
Win vs. Costa Rica (1-0); Draw vs. Mexico (0-0); Loss vs. Belgium (2-4)
With Straus’ article swirling, mixed in with the blizzard conditions in Denver, the U.S. rallied to defeat Costa Rica in the snow on March 22. Though some tried to extract meaningful exchanges from the game itself (like your humble idiot here), it’s best to go back and remember that some (like your humble idiot here) had proffered a #freeboca hashtag before this game.
In any case, the Mighty Bunker in Mexico was an encouraging follow-up, indicating that the locker room probably wasn’t as fractured as we thought previously. And then Belgium. At this point, most of us realized Belgium was quite good. We did not, however, have the hindsight we do now to see that Belgium is dark-horse-World-Cup-winner good. So while the 4-2 loss now elicits shoulder shrugs, then it was a symbol of the strides the team had not yet made.
The team had peaked its head out of its ground emplacement, saw that the winter hadn’t yet abated and scurried back for cover. So we thought. We only had to wait four days.
The tectonic shift
Win vs. Germany (4-3)
Realistically, this game in humid D.C. in late May changed everything. It’s easy enough to point to the Costa Rica game as the hinge point, but the team didn’t fully look like itself until the array of weapons realized their own strength against Germany. It was a spectacle unlike any in recent memory.
Jozy Altidore, slumbering in a fierce tactical winter for nearly two years, suddenly looked as though he’d tapped into his deep wellspring of talent (like, ahem, some of us predicted?). In an attacking sense, this was undoubtedly the most coherent the U.S. has looked under Klinsmann. Dempsey was at his best stretching the German back line, Jozy looked like a terror, and suddenly DaMarcus Beasley had found his legs again. As a left back. None of this made any sense. It was as though Honduras had never happened, like the Straus article didn’t exist. Or, perhaps more realistically, as though it had changed things for the better.
And the fun was only beginning.
The halcyon summer
Wins vs. Jamaica (2-1), Panama (2-0), Honduras (1-0), Guatemala (6-0), Belize (6-1), Cuba (4-1), Costa Rica (1-0), El Salvador (5-1), Honduras (3-1), Panama (1-0), Bosnia-Herzegovina (4-3)
The longest winning streak in the world was built off the back of arguably the greatest non-World Cup summer in USMNT history: a hammerlock on the top spot in the Hex, a Gold Cup title and a magnificent come-from-behind win over an eventual World Cup team in their backyard.
It wasn’t necessarily that the U.S. was simply getting results, either. In previous years, you savored a result in the way you would a cheap wine. If it goes down and warms, it’s worth the time. The summer we’ll all remember began to turn the wheel of perception, that simply scratching out results from a torn tapestry isn’t good enough. Among his positive influences, perhaps the greatest (from my vantage, anyway) is introducing the idea of an aesthetic. It’s not enough to place the result on this sacrosanct mountaintop, unassailable and alone.
Though it may be the most important thing, placing the onus on looking good while you scale the mountain has had wonderful side benefits. Jozy, Landon, Beasley, Bradley, Zusi… a sizable chunk of the roster was putting in shifts befitting the hype. Which is a rare thing. Suddenly Carlos Bocanegra and the notion of a German-American divide had melted into the team’s endearing narrative. Don’t take that turn lightly. For a time, it seemed like a hilariously distant pipe dream.
For a time at least, the USMNT sunned itself and gorged on the feast of wins doled out by CONCACAF. For U.S. soccer fans, the summer of 2013 will always be a touchstone for a time well lived.
Loss vs. Costa Rica (1-3); Win vs. Mexico (2-0); Win vs. Jamaica (2-0); Win vs. Panama (3-2)
The U.S. retreated from its vanguard position with a typically poor showing in Costa Rica. For once, though, the fear of a loss was largely held in check by the summer that had preceded it. Fattened by a string of good results, Costa Rica overran Gonzalez and Besler and put its bumpy home field to good use. It was obvious the summer had ended. Back to reality. Back to grinding. Or so it seemed.
Then dos-a-cero. Say what you will about Jamaica and then that frenzied final night of CONCACAF, of which the progeny is a large contingent of U.S. fans who still have no clue how to process what happened. No, dos-a-cero was the stake in the ground, validating and underlining a prolific summer that a cynical fan base was reluctant to fully accept. It was hard to deny its bonafides now.
Yes, it was just CONCACAF. And yes, the two European bookends were just friendlies. But again, you see the wheel turn in yet another direction as you hover above now. The gap was dead. Even for the most jaded of onlookers, the U.S. had entered a new era of prosperity. It’s length is up for debate, but it’s virility in the here and now is not. As the best team in CONCACAF, was it OK to chart new, more robust expectations? For the first time, that reality seemed closer than ever.
The dour winter
Draw vs. Scotland (0-0); Loss vs. Austria (0-1)
At their core, it’s hard to fully understand the underlying point of these two games. Klinsmann has done this at the end of each of his three years in charge with mixed and unreliable results. In 2011, the U.S. went 1-1 against France and Slovenia. In 2012, it was a 2-2 draw with Russia. Here, two listless friendlies in Scotland and Austria applied the brakes to a locomotive that was steaming into a World Cup year with all the momentum of a meteor.
Ultimately, it was such a USMNT way to end what was otherwise the best non-World Cup year in history – taking a certainty and turning it on its head. The U.S. finished the year with a plus-28 goal differential, eight goals better than the second-best year-end total in history. And yet the U.S. slinks off to the new year doubting its bit players more than expected. Contributors like Brek Shea, Mix Diskerud and Sacha Kljestan are periphery players for the World Cup roster, but it would’ve been nice for one to seize the opportunity. Instead, malaise. If there was a glimmer of sun to poke through the slate-gray snow clouds (as in, a single bright spot) Aron Johannsson’s emergence was it.
And so here we are. Looking back at the year with goggles cleared by hindsight, looking forward to a World Cup that can’t arrive soon enough. Taken as a whole, 2013 was a hell of a ride. Here’s hoping 2014 plays a trump card.