Upon the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann, things seemed very bleak for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s hopes of a successful qualification campaign.
After qualifying for the Hex, Klinsmann’s squad opened with a very tough pair of matches against Mexico in Columbus and on the road against Costa Rica. While everyone knew that results would be challenging to get, the subsequent respective 2-1 and 4-0 defeats left the USMNT with no points through their first two, and arguably most important, Hex matches.
This, combined with the perceived loss of the locker room that was evident in the Costa Rica loss, ultimately led to Klinsmann being ousted from his position.
“A lot of little things started to drop,” team captain Michael Bradley explained. “When we get our blend right in terms of football, physicality, athleticism, mobility, speed, mentality, spirit, when we get that right, there aren’t too many teams in the world that are going to have easy days playing against us. We feel like we can step on the field and beat anybody. But if a few too many areas start to come down, we’re also honest enough with ourselves to understand that our margin is not real big and then we’re going to start to put ourselves in some difficult spots.”
Those small drops, those little things, can significantly add up in international soccer. National teams often meet just a few times per year, and even less for meaningful competitive matches. That means little things like chemistry, work rate, and mentality can be very fickle to find and maintain. Bradley and others have expressed their views that Klinsmann didn’t nurture those small things well enough to set the USMNT up to succeed. They also believe that Bruce Arena, in his second tenure, has refocused the team around those small things to revitalize the World Cup qualification effort.
“I think Bruce has done a very good job at coming in and little by little, getting every… just raising the level across the board,” said Michael Bradley. “A big part of that is this idea of team, of spirit, of mentality, of balls. And understanding that we have good players, we have a good team, but we’re not good enough to just step on the field and think that things are going to take care of themselves. We have to constantly push ourselves at the highest level in all of those ways. Over these two weeks, and over the ten days in March, we’ve made good strides.”
Nowhere was that more evident than in Sunday night’s draw at Estadio Azteca against Mexico. With a heavily rotated lineup and a brand new formation, Arena’s team looked like an entirely different beast from the horror show of last November. From Christian Pulisic’s ever-increasing presence, to the high-intensity performances from Paul Arriola, DeAndre Yedlin, and Kellyn Acosta, right up to Bradley’s doubter-silencing, stunning first-half goal, the little things showed up in force.
The attacking midfielders and forwards were aggressive when pressing forward. The defensive midfielders and fullbacks did a wonderful job of pushing forward when they could, and crashing back when they needed to defend. The centerbacks took care of everything in their neighborhood. From front to back, the team looked born again and the result showed, as the USMNT seized a rare and valuable point from the depths of Mexico.
“It was a big point,” said defender Geoff Cameron. “We needed to get back up into the top half of the group. We had a game plan. Everybody worked together today as one. Defended. Frustrate them today. And we left it all on the field.”
“It’s not easy in the Hex to win on the road, as evidenced in this rivalry,” said Arena. “We were close tonight. I’m proud of the result. I’m a little greedy. I would have liked three points, but give credit to the Mexican team. They scored a very good goal and they put us under pressure the whole evening. ”
Cameron had one of the shining performances of the night, anchoring the center of the U.S. back line and putting an end to chance after chance for Mexico’s dangerous attack. He, along with partners Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez, shut down the middle and forced Mexico to play wide, where Yedlin and the ever-youthful DeMarcus Beasley did their best to nip any dangerous crosses in the bud.
The end result was a shining defensive success and one of the best USMNT performances, and results, in recent memory. The USMNT has a friendly and a mid-summer Gold Cup in between now and the next qualification matches in September, but the confidence from this performance will last for a good while. That’s not to say Arena and company are feeling too cocky, they’re all too aware of the precarious position their slow start has left them in, but there’s a confidence present that was lacking before.
“I think the competition for the first three spots in CONCACAF is going to go down to the last game,” said Arena. “Certainly, Mexico has a big advantage at this point and the second and third places and fourth are going to be challenging right until the end. I feel good about where we are. We’ve made up some lost ground, so I feel good about all of that.”
“They were terrific. The older players that weren’t on the field were very supportive of their teammates,” added Arena. “I think, in my experience with national teams, this is critical. You meet even fewer times a year now. Most of these players now will disappear now until September. To leave with the bond that they’ve acquired over the last four games is very important. The next time around, I’m optimistic we can be better in the next two games in qualifying.”
That bond will need to sustain and carry into September’s qualification matches against Costa Rica and Honduras. The U.S. currently sits third in the Hex, on eight points through six matches, with all eight coming in the four since Arena took over. Level with Costa Rica in second, and two points above Panama in fourth, the USMNT is sitting far prettier than they were at the end of 2016. Direct qualification is in sight, but the effort, the little things, need to continue to make it happen.