BALTIMORE – Five months ago, there were doubts. There were detractors. There were promises unfulfilled.
With a must-win World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica on the horizon, Jurgen Klinsmann’s grasp on his team was tenuous, according to nameless sources within the camp. There were alleged divisions and cliques within the group and neither the freewheeling style proposed or the ability to compete with the world’s elite had materialized.
And yet, just months after the most tumultuous period in Klinsmann’s tenure in charge of the US national team, those trials and tribulations seem like a lifetime ago.
On Sunday, the US dispatched an overmatched El Salvador side 5-1 to advance to the Gold Cup semifinals, their ninth straight win dating back to June. It's not only a record winning streak for the USMNT, but also perhaps a sign that patience all that was needed to see the progress the German taskmaster promised when he was hired after years of pursuit.
“That’s how sports are,” said Eddie Johnson, who scored the US’ third goal to put Sunday's game out of reach. “Everyone expects [Klinsmann] to come in and turn things around right away. Nothing happens overnight. It takes work. It takes time.
“It just goes to show you the hard work that he’s been doing, [assisant coach Martin Vasquez] has been doing and the whole coaching staff has been doing in trying to embed everything into our heads camp after camp, qualifier after qualifier as far as understanding what he wants from us and staying true to what we believe in in the locker room. Everything is starting to click.”
After being swept aside by the Americans, El Salvador head coach Agustín Castillo raved about the US’ movement seemingly by “memory,” as well as their their ability to create chances from a variety of positions and methods and the deft use of space that kept La Selecta on the back foot throughout.
Led by Landon Donovan’s spellbinding performance, the US set about representing what Klinsmann envisioned when he took the job two years ago. They were dynamic. They played with tempo. They took another step forward on the path to Brazil 2014.
And this was the “B” team, which is becoming a misnomer if there ever was one.
“What we’re trying to do is catch up with the big teams in the world and raise the bar,” Klinsmann said in Sunday's postgame press conference. “It’s all about speed. I’m not talking about physical speed. I’m talking about mental speed, passing speed, about compactness, about going both ways with all 11 players involved defensively and offensively. …
"This is a process and I think that process is coming along with both groups, the group that was in there in May-June and now in July.”
Against CONCACAF opposition in this Gold Cup, the current group has established themselves as nothing short of tournament favorites. Of course, two matches remain to seal the deal and wrest the title of defending champions from Mexico.
But there’s no reason to think this team isn’t capable. The past hasn’t defined the future. If anything, it served as the bonding agent necessary to make another leap forward.
These days, the overriding themes surrounding the Americans are unity and progress. Positivity reigns. They sit atop the Hexagonal standings. The Gold Cup is within grasp.
El Salvador simply weren't in the same weight class, and that’s exactly what’s expected from a US team back to being the 800-pound gorilla in the region. Next up is Honduras on Wednesday in Dallas.
“I think it’s important that we kind of send out a signal in these games because, to be honest, the only team that can really lose is us,” Klinsmann said. “We all expect, the fans expect to move on and win that game.”