Fast-forward to another qualifier against Los Ticos, however, and the US appear well on their way to punching a ticket to Russia.
Four qualifying matches remain in determining the Americans’ World Cup fate, starting with Friday's Ticos rematch at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. But the US are in good standing after enjoying what has so far been a banner year in 2017. They have not only bounced back in their qualifying campaign by grabbing two wins and two draws, but are also undefeated in all their matches this year, while grabbing last month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup crown to boot.
It is a stark difference from where the Americans were nine months ago after that humbling defeat in Costa Rica. As far as US captain Michael Bradley is concerned, one major change has been the key ingredient.
“For me, the biggest thing is always the mentality of your group,” said Bradley at a press conference in Manhattan on Tuesday. “How the group of guys, with the staff and with the coaches, feel they’re in something together and it’s not just a bunch of guys who come in and who are looking to do their own thing and who only care about themselves and what is good for them as individuals.
“The only chance you have is to have, again, a team full of guys and people around you that understand that everybody has to give a little bit of what they are to make everybody around them better. You can create this mentality. [Head coach Bruce Arena] and his staff have done a really good job of getting that part back to where it needed to be.”
The Yanks have also benefited from the integration of younger players like Kellyn Acosta and Jorge Villafaña, who’ve brought some much-needed energy and competition to a group full of proven veterans.
“The makeup of this team, I keep talking about, is probably the best I’ve ever seen,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “The reason for that is we’ve got a really good nucleus of young guys. Christian [Pulisic] gets all the attention and rightfully so, but we’ve got a bunch of young guys – Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta – kids who aren’t afraid of the spotlight.
“I think a lot of the credit goes to the veterans in this group. We’ve got some guys who are superstar names who are getting older, who under Bruce’s tutelage have decided that they’ll take any role that’s offered to them and help the team. I think with the national team, you don’t see that a lot.
“When you’re an older superstar, most guys will kind of throw their hands up and say, ‘I don’t need to travel, I don’t need the headache, I need to play every minute.’ That’s not what this group is about, so I think from top to bottom the team is structured really well to not only be a good team, but compete.”
While the USMNT have gotten their qualifying campaign back on track, they still need to keep things going, beginning with Friday’s match. Any slip-up there could well put the Americans back in jeopardy of missing next summer’s World Cup, but a victory would bring them one step closer to completing a notable turnaround.
“We’ve gotten this far. We’ve turned it around in the right ways and we’ve got to make sure we finish the job,” said Bradley. “All the work that we’ve put in this year was for these next four games, to make sure that we can find the right ways in the biggest moments, when the lights come on brightest, that we make sure that we get the job done.”