WASHINGTON – Mix Diskerud's rise to prominence with the US national team has been illuminated by not only his tantalizing flashes of brilliance in midfield, but also a quick smile and mischievous wit. On Thursday, however, it seemed that the charismatic 24-year-old's grin dimmed a bit as he spoke to the media before the USMNT's final practice before an intriguing meeting with Peru at RFK Stadium.
Was Mix simply putting on a game face ahead of schedule, reflecting the seriousness of the occasion for a program with much on the line over the next few weeks? There's a Gold Cup fiasco to wash away, after all, and a winner-takes-all duel coming up in the form of the CONCACAF Cup on Oct. 10.
Or was he feeling serious due to the stresses of New York City FC's topsy-turvy debut season in MLS, a uniquely bold experiment in the nation's biggest metropolis which has thrust Diskerud to center stage as one of the expansion side's high-profile, heavily-marketed acquisitions?
Whatever he was feeling, the Norwegian-born playmaker hung in there and got the job done in front of the microphones at RFK, amiably answering questions for longer than any of his teammates before jogging out for warm-ups.
“We're super geared up to get these two games going on,” said Diskerud of Friday's game and the following Tuesday night tangle with Brazil. “Then we've got a very important game against Mexico, which we of course intend to win so we can go to Russia in 2017 [for the Confederations Cup].”
But talk soon turned back to NYCFC. Carrying big plans, pricey overseas signings and quirky home confines at Yankee Stadium, the team has lurched from showy shootout wins to brutal blowout losses this season. Mix's form has often followed suit. He netted a cold-blooded finish on opening day, only to go downright cold as his team nose-dived into an 11-game winless skid that dragged into June.
When summer arrived, the club crammed a luxurious new piece into central midfield with the signing of Designated Player Andrea Pirlo. Another DP soon entered the engine room with Frank Lampard's long-awaited arrival, shunting Diskerud into an wide role. And with three goals, two yellow cards and just one assist in 1600 league minutes, the modest nature of Mix's more measurable contributions have exposed him to additional scrutiny from the Big Apple's famously impatient sports fans.
And for all that – even after the low point of that 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the LA Galaxy on national TV on August 23 – NYCFC and their disappointing 7-13-7 record are still just one point shy of a playoff spot.
“It's been up and down, of course,” said Diskerud on Thursday. “It hasn't gone how we wanted it to go. But now you can't really look back – you can learn from it, but we still have a shot at making the playoffs and we're going to do everything in our power to get there. We had some tough losses but we've got to bounce back.”
If Diskerud hasn't quite hit the ground running, several factors should be considered, from his adjustment to life in MLS, to his frequent turns in an unfamiliar flank role, to the wider questions about the construction of his team's roster.
“It's definitely a tough league. A lot of good athletes and the pace is fast. I already knew that coming in,” he said.
He claims to avoid spending too much time on self-reflection. But self-awareness is evident.
“I never really rate myself and talk about myself – I just try to play and you guys can do that,” said Diskerud. “But I'm playing right wing; I'm not really used to playing that. I'm up for learning new things and I'm a young player, only 24 years old, so things like that help me and develop me as a player.... Of course I am a central midfielder. But anything that helps the team.”
He finds himself in a similar situation at the national-team level. Center backs and central-minded midfielders dominate the current roster, one Jurgen Klinsmann has assembled with the explicit purpose of lineup evaluation ahead of the CONCACAF Cup. Depending on the choice of formation, Diskerud could be seen to have as many as six direct competitors for minutes in these two games, and that's before captain Michael Bradley meets up with the team in Massachusetts after the weekend.
The USMNT's Gold Cup frustrations were dragged back into the light in D.C. this week as Klinsmann expressed, at length, his dismay not only with the tournament's results, but its refereeing. Diskerud, however, was uninterested in offering up excuses for the team's fourth-place finish and pointed to rising tides across the CONCACAF region.
“Definitely it's become much more competitive, the Gold Cup. It's very, very good teams going forth and a lot of teams that are in the Gold Cup did very well at the World Cup,” he said. “I definitely think Europe looks at the teams and countries in North America and Central America and see that there is huge development."
He demurred similarly over the officiating controversy. “We deal with anything that's thrown our way," he said. "Of course there were some situations – it happens in soccer. The player and the ref can see things differently.”
With daunting obstacles to overcome with both club and country, that resilient attitude is likely to come in handy for Mix down the home stretch of a testing 2015.