“[US Soccer] has come a long way, but we have quite a way to go still to break into the top 10 in the world. We need to be realistic that we’re not there. Not yet.”
Those were the words of Jurgen Klinsmann nearly three years ago on the day he was introduced as US national team coach.
Was part of his job description to lead the USMNT to unprecedented success at the 2014 World Cup? That’s up for debate. He was hired to do many things within the US Soccer pyramid, and given even more responsibility when he was named technical director of the entire program last December.
So in that regard, it’s probably not fair to say one tournament will define progress. Or is it? The US national team is just hours away from figuring that out.
On Thursday, they have a chance to prove a great many things in a crucial match against Germany in Recife (noon ET, ESPN).
Win, and they top Group G, winning a World Cup group for the second consecutive tournament and the second time ever. In doing so, they would make a huge statement against Klinsmann’s old side, one of the best in the world, and would prove they were strong enough to advance out of the Group of Death.
Draw, and they still advance, but in second in the group behind Germany, with whom they’d finish tied on five points but with an inferior goal differential. It would still mark an accomplishment, advancing to the knockout round in consecutive World Cups for the first time ever.
Lose, and they let their fate be dictated by the result of the Portugal-Ghana game that will be played simultaneously. And that’s a place no one wants to be in.
It’s a familiar, awkward place. The US have been there before, most recently in 2002, when were forced to scoreboard-watch in Daejeon, South Korea, as Poland were putting a beating on them that nearly cost them a spot in the knockout round.
They rode a bit of magic pixie dust that day when they learned that Park Ji-Sung’s 70th-minute goal in Incheon gave already-advanced South Korea a win they didn’t really need, but one that kept Portugal from overtaking the USMNT into the knockout round.
But the Koreans were playing for pride in front of their fans. They did it in every single game they played that tournament as co-hosts, and became the first Asian team to reach the semifinals of a World Cup.
That’s part of what the US can do on Thursday. True, they’re a long way from making the semis, and they’re a long way from home.
But they have an opportunity to make an emphatic statement of intent: They can punch their own ticket to the knockout rounds without relying on anyone else.
This is not something that’s part of the DNA of the USMNT on the international stage. They backed their way into the knockout round at the 1994 World Cup, losing to Romania on the final matchday of group play but advancing when other results went their way.
It happened again 15 years later at the Confederations Cup, when they advanced out of their group with just three points, thanks to an emphatic final-day win over Egypt and a miraculous swing in goal differential of six.
In fact, there have only been two occasions in which the US have done the work themselves.
The first was at the 1999 Confederations Cup in Mexico, when Bruce Arena made wholesale changes to his starting lineup and still thumped Germany in Guadalajara 2-0, advancing to the semifinals of the tournament.
The second was four years ago. You may have heard of the Landon Donovan goal in Pretoria. It took 91 minutes to make that one happen. Better late than never.
Yes, Klinsmann has received a fair bit of criticism over the past three years, and some of his promises haven’t yet borne fruit. But some have.
The USMNT has historic wins in Mexico and Italy under its belt. It has a program record 13-game winning streak to its credit. It has indeed – despite some stretches where it hasn’t seemed like it – employed a “more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent,” as Klinsmann envisioned three summers ago.
USMNT only out possessed once in last 16 games. pic.twitter.com/FnFwL6pgB3— Alex O (@tempofreesoccer) December 13, 2013
There’s a lot more work to do that goes far beyond results, style and overturning history. And maybe that won’t happen in Brazil. Maybe it won’t happen in the 2018 cycle, either.
But on Thursday, the USMNT has a chance to put everything it has accomplished over the past 35 months into one tidy little package by taking matters into its own hands.
A win would be great. A tie would do. Leaving it to chance would work, too, as long as the results work out.
But that’s not progress. That’s a reversion to the old ways. If this truly is the beginning of a new era for the USMNT, it’s time roll up the sleeves and get the job done on our own.
That’s something that’s quintessentially American. But it’s also what the best teams in the world do.
We’ll see if we’re there yet.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.