The Throw-In: The USMNT is in better shape than you think
Alright, everyone – get over it.
Yes, the US national team’s performance in Tuesday’s narcoleptic scoreless draw with Canada was uninspiring, drab and ugly. It was disappointing, especially after Jurgen Klinsmann raved about his inexperienced group’s progress and maturity in January camp.
But all this hyperbole about it being a catastrophe and a step back, supposedly, should not put a cloud over what’s about to happen in a little less than a week: the beginning of the final hurdle before Brazil 2014.
So ignore the lack of finishing. Look past the vacuum of creativity or the failing to unlock a team like Canada parking the bus at BBVA Compass Stadium. Focus.
A date with Honduras is the just the beginning. A tough one, sure. The USMNT will have to put in a heroic performance to get the Hexagonal off on the right foot. But there are a lot of positives for Klinsmann & Co. in 2013. Keep all this in mind when the senior roster for next week’s game is named on Sunday:
Clint Dempsey is at the peak of his powers, and is blowing up for Tottenham Hotspur. Deuce’s skill set is well-known at this point. But his confidence is soaring right now, and he’s a key reason why Spurs have rebounded from a slow start in Premier League play and are in good position to grab a UEFA Champions League berth.
No, Dempsey’s not at his record-setting pace of last season with Fulham, but he’s learning how to make his minutes count when he’s not starting, and he’s a spark every time he’s on the field. He also has five goals in his last five USMNT appearances, and this Hexagonal will be his show.
Jozy Altidore is maturing – not just into a complete player, but a man. The 20 goals across all competitions for AZ Alkmaar is plenty impressive. And he’s scoring in every which way, from bruising, physical strikes to more technical touches of the ball. Also encouraging is the fact that he’s apparently taken Klinsmann’s criticism of his fitness and dedication to heart.
But Altidore’s response to an ugly situation in Dutch Cup play on Tuesday speaks worlds to how much he has grown. He didn’t let the racist chants from a group of disgusting Den Bosch fans rattle him. He stood up like a man and kept playing the game. And his comments postgame, both to Dutch TV and to SI.com, show that he has learned exactly how to carry himself in tough situations. All this at age 23. That’s an asset that’s incalculably valuable. Klinsmann is surely impressed.
The backline is less of a weakness than everyone thinks. Yeah, yeah, Carlos Bocanegra isn’t getting any younger and too many of us are still lamenting the decline of Oguchi Onyewu. We’ve heard it already.
Meanwhile, Geoff Cameron is growing quickly into a serviceable defender at the international level and is honing his versatility with Stoke City. Michael Parkhurst is a solid option either outside or inside, depending on the opponent.
Klinsmann reportedly has somehow convinced Timmy Chandler to put up rather than shut up, which is an immediate injection of youth, athleticism and technical ability on the flanks. And those cries of panic for depth have been addressed and acted upon. Which brings us to…
Major League Soccer is contributing just fine, thank you. Yes, the scoreless draw vs. Canada with all-MLS starting lineup doesn’t look overly rosy on paper. But when Klinsmann said there were “no surprises” on the pitch, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler both looked capable of contributing at this level, and played well enough vs. the Canadians. They also (maybe more importantly) impressed Klinsmann in camp, too. If this is the year they break through with the full senior team, Tuesday wasn’t a bad beginning. Klinsmann was expecting this. Nope, no surprises.
Graham Zusi didn’t bowl us over either, but he’s already shown he belongs and that he’s a reliable option in the midfield – even in the starting lineup when needed. Kyle Beckerman is still a solid option at holding midfielder. Benny Feilhaber showed signs of being the creative force he was in 2010.
And despite a quiet night in Houston, all signs should point to Eddie Johnson continuing on his upward trajectory from 2012, with triumphant returns to both the national team and the MLS scoring leader board.
Don't disregard the US friendly victory in Mexico City last August. Yes, it was just a friendly against a less-than-full-strength El Tri in a less-than-full Estadio Azteca. But the mystic hex is dead. Players know a win is possible in what was once a den of nightmares for three-quarters of a century. They can win there. Which means they can win in Costa Rica. And Panama. And Honduras.
So put on your US jersey with pride and strap in. Between qualifying, the Gold Cup and US Soccer’s centennial, it’s going to be a long, busy and hopefully rewarding year for the USMNT. It starts next Wednesday, whether you're ready or not. Get on the bus.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.