The prologue's done. Nine days from now, we'll have an idea if Saturday's strong 2-1 win over Nigeria was a harbinger of things to come, or a false positive (negative?) leading to a disappointing Group stage.
Honestly? I'm encouraged.
Let's take a look at some of the high points:
1. Welcome back, Jozy
Forget the tactical aspects of how Jozy Altidore got his goals. The important thing - as pointed out on Twitter, on the broadcast, and probably shouted at the screen in various bars and living rooms around the country - is that he got them at all.
Altidore doesn't need to be "special" for the US to advance. He just needs to be smart and solid. He need to finish the good looks he gets. He needs to punish defenders and transition. And he needs to play with confidence.
Look, that first goal is going to make nobody's top 10 list (other than maybe Alejandro Bedoya's - nice pass!), but it was magnitudes more important than the second goal:
Altidore, after the game, said he never got down and never doubted himself. If he was fibbing (and it's hard to imagine he wasn't), he's certainly not down now.
That is incredibly important (duh) heading into Brazil.
2. Committed to the diamond
Jurgen Klinsmann may say that formations don't matter, or that the way they're discussed is archaic, or any number of other things. And while I think there's some merit to his point - I wrote last year about how blanket discussion of formations can lead to sloppy analysis - I, by and large, can't get behind his statements.
Especially because he's now gone with the same tactical look for the last four games. The diamond midfield in a 4-4-2 is a very specific set, one that's not common on the world stage, and it takes very specific instructions to play. It doesn't just happen by accident, like how the flat 4-4-2 can suddenly look like a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-5-1 or a 3-5-2, etc.
So I think it was a little willful misdirection from Der Golden Bomber, which is fine - mostly because I love the diamond. I think it's an incredibly useful formation for a team that has a conservative gameplan:
"Conserve energy and spring" has been demonstrated nicely by US this half. Decent strategy for Brazil humidity.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) June 7, 2014
Klinsmann was smart in telling the team to drop the line of confrontation very deep and defend their box rather than trying to pressure all over the field. If you stretch yourself immediately upon the turnover, you will allow transition looks. If you allow transition looks to Ghana, Portugal and Germany, you will get stomped. Defending deep also allows you to protect a backline that is still wobbly and underwhelming.
This is very similar to how Bora Milutinovic had the US playing in 1994 - sit deep and hit on the run. It may not be the soccer revolution Klinsmann promised, but I think it's our best chance to stay compact defensively and still be dangerous going forward. If we can do that, we can advance.
And we might catch teams off-guard with this particular wrinkle:
As modern game continues to become more "inverted," fullbacks are your playmakers. Isolated 1v1, facing goalmouth more than any position.— Kyle Martino (@kylemartino) June 7, 2014
3. The Gattuso Role and Jermaine Jones
The last truly great team to use the diamond primarily was AC Milan of the mid-00s, the one with Pirlo and Kaka and Inzaghi and the misunderstood Gennaro Gattuso.
Lots of people considered Gattuso to be the Italian Makelele, a true No. 6 who held in front of the defense and did the dirty work. Gattuso would, occasionally, play that role - with the national team. With Milan, Pirlo would sit in front of the defense as a regista while Gattuso would play off to one side or the other (usually the left) destroying higher up the pitch. The idea was that Pirlo's better passing and greater positional discipline was more valuable in front of the backine than was Gattuso's great ball-winning ability.
Compounding that was just how much trouble opposing midfielders had dealing with a destroyer of Gattuso's quality higher up the pitch.
Something of that whole thing seems to have been bottled by the US today, with Kyle Beckerman in the Pirlo role and Jermaine Jones in the Gattuso role. Jones was let off the leash to do what he does, while Beckerman provided the platform for destruction:
Jones played his best game in ages for the US, and did so largely because he was freed from defensive responsibility. It carried over to his attacking play as well
You know what started that off? Simple pass from Jones. No hero ball.— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) June 7, 2014
That tweet above is about the opening goal, and Matt is right - that was a simple, clean play from Jones. Gattuso did it a million times in red and black, and it's comforting to see Jones following that lead.
1. Michael Bradley as the point of the diamond works. I know there are compelling reasons to sit him deeper, but I think we can replicate a lot of what he does as a holding midfielder. As an attacking mid, though? Nobody brings the same skillset, with or without the ball.
2. I wanted to make this a part of point No. 2 above, but couldn't fit it in. Anyway, this is not the first time Klinsmann has adapted his tactical scheme at a very late date. Back in 2006, his German team played the diamond (very poorly) for a long, long time before Michael Ballack and Jogi Loew talked him out of it. In the months before the Cup kicked off, they went to a flatter 4-4-2 (more of a 4-1-3-2), and ended up producing some of the msot attractive soccer of the tournament, along with a surprise run to the semifinals.
This is all encouraging stuff, and a much-needed shot of adrenaline with the ultimate test close enough to touch.