COLUMBUS, Ohio — The U.S. Men’s National Team did not just turn in a big bounce-back performance in World Cup Qualifying on Tuesday night.
It delivered a perfect response.
The U.S. entered this week’s World Cup qualifier against Guatemala under severe scrutiny, the result of a flat and brutally inept performance in an embarrassing defeat to Los Chapines last Friday in Central America. The loss not only had the Americans sitting uncomfortably in third place in their group, but also left them with the realization that another letdown could cost them their World Cup dreams.
Rather than wilt under the pressure, the U.S., as it tends to do, responded. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players put forth the type of commanding showing that is expected of them every time they face a largely-inferior CONCACAF nation. The final result? A 4-0 win at Mapfre Stadium that, at least for the time being, righted the ship on the journey to to Russia 2018.
Naturally, there were only positives to take away from this victory. The character demonstrated was that of the U.S. of old, and so too were the fight, hustle, and determination.
Here are some of the biggest things we learned from the game:
OLD GUARD STILL NEEDED ON ROAD TO WORLD CUP
Let’s face it. Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, and Graham Zusi are all long shots to make it to Russia in a little more than two years’ time because of their age.
Nonetheless, they all demonstrated on Tuesday just how important they still are to the U.S. cause.
The Americans delivered strong performances all across the board vs. Guatemala, but some of the most notable ones came from veteran players that had been written off by media and fans alike. Yes, Guatemala is not the fiercest foe, but the impacts that Dempsey, Zusi, and Beckerman had all played key parts in the impressive overall showing the U.S. enjoyed.
Dempsey was active and aggressive from the onset as the false nine in the three-man front line, and that paid off with his 12th-minute opener. Zusi, meanwhile, helped keep the ball moving as the U.S. midfield overmatched Guatemala and Beckerman did the dirty work in front of the back four to .
The three players all proved that they still have enough left in the tank to play a part in this qualifying process, and that should come as no surprise. Older players help guide teams throughout every four-year cycle before they eventually hit their expiration dates and make way for the next wave of talent.
Dempsey, Zusi, and Beckerman’s times are not up. Not yet, anyway.
ZARDES AGAIN EFFECTIVE VS. CONCACAF TEAM
Gyasi Zardes’ touch might be poor and he might not have the technical skills to consistently be a threat vs. top nations, but what he does have is the physical tools to to cause CONCACAF teams fits.
Zardes showed that against Guatemala on more than one occasion, and it is not by coincidence that he had assists on two of the Americans’ goals. He made a darting run that drew the attention of two defenders before the ball crashed off of him and into the path of Dempsey for the opener, and also got in behind to receive a pass he failed control properly but that fell to Zusi for the U.S.’s third tally.
Aside from those plays, Zardes constantly used his speed to stretch the Guatemala back four. The opposing defenders had to stay on their toes for fear of getting beat by Zardes’ speed, and that helped keep Guatemala’s back line deep and unable to put more pressure off the U.S. midfield.
Some observers might still think Zardes does more harm than good, especially when he starts, but his athleticism will come in handy vs. teams in CONCACAF. Former U.S. forward Eddie Johnson had his share of success in qualifiers and his bread and butter was simply being a better athlete than most of his opponents. Zardes can fit that role, bad touch or not.
U.S. FANDOM REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Soccer might still be growing in this country, but one needed to only look at the extreme measure some fan (fans?) took to display their unhappiness with Jurgen Klinsmann before the game to see how much the sport and its supporters have developed.
A plane with a banner that said “#FireKlinsmann” flew overhead prior to Tuesday’s match, and it underlined just how much fandom in the United States is maturing. Never before have U.S. aficionados been so irate at a coach that they have made such a public protest to express their displeasure. Sure, Bob Bradley was the target of much wrath towards the end of his tenure, but no one ever took such a drastic approach to try and call for his ouster.
Think about that for a second. Someone (likely) paid hard-earned money to fly an anti-Klinsmann banner over Mapfre Stadium. That is something that you might be more accustomed to hearing about in Europe or South America, where pressure is usually high and fans’ happiness hinges every result, but it happened here because of Klinsmann’s poor results as of late.
Klinsmann may or may not have been aware of the banner, but he nonetheless sounded a bit sensitive to the recent scrutiny has been receiving from fans and media during his postgame interview. He seemed to be feeling the pressure, and that is phase in the evolution of the game in this country because people are starting to care more and more about what happens on the field.
PERFORMANCE NEEDS TO SERVE AS BASE FOR COPA AMERICA CENTENARIO
If we are being brutally honest, the U.S. is all but through to the final round of qualifying. Two matches still have to be played, of course, but they are more than favorable for the Americans given that one is against Group C piñata St Vincent & the Grenadines and the other at home vs. Trinidad & Tobago.
The U.S. should have little to no problem getting the necessary points to move into the Hexagonal, which is why the Copa America Centenario will serve as the true gauge for where the team stands two years before the World Cup. The Americans are likely be pushed to their limits in that one-off tournament, and will need to continue to show the characteristics they had on Tuesday in order to avoid an early exit on home soil.
Klinsmann and his players got back to basics against Guatemala, bringing heart, energy, tenacity, and togetherness to the field from the opening whistle. More talented opponents like the ones on the schedule this summer are sure to provide stiffer tests, but the U.S. will always have a fighting chance to grab a result if it plays like the confident team that fought hard for 50-50 balls and worked nonstop on Tuesday.