There was no mistaking the curtain of caution that dropped around the US national team last week in the lead-up to Friday's victory over Costa Rica in Colorado.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players still showed up for their scheduled media appearances, but they uttered few memorable lines and in some cases, stuck doggedly to traditional sports cliches as if by design.
With the exception of one session, which was closed entirely to media, reporters were allowed to watch the first 15 or 20 minutes of each training before being shooed out – not an uncommon practice, but one which created a surreal scene during last Thursday's training at the University of Denver as UD students were allowed to lounge on the bleachers of their school's soccer field while credentialed reporters were removed from the premises.
Veteran ESPN columnist Bill Simmons calls it the “No one believed in us!” routine. It's one of the oldest, simplest and most effective motivational techniques ever used in a locker room: circling the wagons and stoking a team's inner fire by underlining the lack of belief or support among those outside that inner sanctum.
Whether it was Klinsmann or his team's veteran leaders who played up this theme, it was a huge element of the snowy triumph at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, as the squad revealed with their general postgame bearing and one or two illuminating quotes, especially the following from Geoff Cameron:
“Everybody wanted to see us lose with everything that happened this week,” said the defender, putting a fair amount of fire in his words before backtracking slightly, adding, “All the pressure was on us – the defense was this, the defense was that. Everything that was said is thrown out the window now because we all stuck together.”
The obvious explanation was the seismic effect of Brian Straus' Sporting News article about the confusion and doubt in and around the team under Klinsmann, which instantly became the leading topic of the week when it was published a week ago.
The carefully researched piece and its frank quotes from anonymous players – at least a few of whom were present in Denver, MLSsoccer.com confirmed – was turned into a lever, a reason for the team to amp up the "No one believed in us" rhetoric.
“Aw, that stuff is nonsense,” said striker Jozy Altidore after the game. “Look, unfortunately these things happen in sports.”
Naturally, this can create conflict where none actually exists. Straus' article wasn't a hit-piece; rather, it was a look at the reasons behind the uneven form of the US during Klinsmann's tenure.
As one scribe drily noted in the DSGP press box on Friday, most of the USMNT press corps finds their own career opportunities enhanced when the team wins, not the other way around. But pro athletes are deeply accustomed to competing and thus many find it easy to view media relations in an adversarial way.
So the US don't get any points for originality on this tactic – yet that's not the point here. A collective in need of urgency, intensity and unity looked around, decided that the world was stacked against it and responded by adding an irritated edge to their mindset, with positive results.
Klinsmann and his men readily admitted that Friday's blizzard-like playing conditions left little room to answer tactical concerns or lay down a marker of the flowing possession play he seeks to implement in the program.
This means that some of the same questions about the team's chemistry and rhythm will linger at least until Tuesday, when this “us against the world” mindset will come in handy yet again as the Yanks visit Mexico at the mighty Estadio Azteca, a venue where few World Cup qualifying opponents have ever tasted anything but abject defeat.