It was nowhere near as galling or costly a setback as the Under-23 team’s Olympic qualifying failure this spring. Still, the US men’s national team’s 4-1 loss to Brazil in Landover, Md., on Wednesday once again highlighted the risks inherent in moving beyond the program’s recognized strengths into more ambitious territory.
By and large, the Yanks took on the Seleção at their own game, often allowing the game's pace to ramp up at the cost of collective shape and defensive solidity, and in the decisive category – finishing – the five-time World Cup winners were comfortable victors.
Notwithstanding a few of his more emotional – and meticulously scrutinized – postgame remarks, coach Jurgen Klinsmann will have taken many benefits and useful observations from this friendly, though.
Klinsmann: Time to experiment is over
There are only a handful of other occasions in the national team’s history on which the Yanks have so confidently stood toe to toe with opposition of that caliber. Klinsmann might have structured his lineup and tactics a bit differently had this been a must-win (or “can’t-lose”) game, yet the United States’ most impressive periods of the game suggested that the skillful, proactive style he espouses may well be within reach.
Encouragingly, the US team’s postgame remarks suggest that the margin of victory has had little effect on their self-belief as they enter a stretch of their schedule with bigger stakes, but much less illustrious adversaries.
With the exceptions of Mexico, Costa Rica and perhaps a couple of other Central American nations at peak form, CONCACAF competition rarely offers up rivals who possess anything close to the Brazilians’ superlative collective ability.
The trickiest challenges tend to arrive in other forms: long, draining travel to hostile, unrefined destinations, quick turnaround times, uneven officiating and bruising, defensive, at times desperate opponents. The first round of group play will offer a less taxing introduction to these realities, while next year – should all go according to plan – will bring the rougher editions.
These situations will require flexibility and dexterity when it comes to tactics and personnel, as well as a deep player pool as injuries and suspensions pile up. And the program’s famous qualities – unity, resilience and mental strength – will be just as important in this cycle as they’ve been for the past two decades.
Klinsmann will have done his homework, but as veterans of CONCACAF qualifying can attest, nothing can truly prepare the Yanks for the arduous settings they must negotiate en route to the FIFA World Cup in two years’ time. He and his charges have laid a useful foundation, but the toughest challenges are the least predictable ones – and plenty of those surely lie ahead.