There are all sorts of good reasons why we shouldn't get too excited about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s victory over Mexico last night in Columbus, Ohio. Just last week, after all, we got pasted by a Costa Rican squad in San Jose that roamed across our midfield as if it were a deserted plain. The U.S. should win at home, especially against a shapeless, deflated Mexican team. And the U.S. should qualify for the World Cup; it always does.
But last night’s Dos a Cero was still awesome. Especially in light of how bleak things were looking for the U.S. team just 6 months ago, after it had lost its first World Cup qualifying match. The team’s heart and soul, Landon Donovan, was on an indefinite leave from international soccer, and the knives were finding the back of the still-newish head coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. Players anonymously trashed him for being “scatterbrained,” for training them too hard and coaching them too little and for favoring the team’s German-born players.
Just as every U.S. soccer triumph comes with a caveat, every stumble is treated like a catastrophic fall. So the question was inevitably asked: Had the team been better off under New Jersey’s own Bob Bradley?
The U.S team has always had a never-say-die attitude, which Bradley took as far as he could. But Klinsmann has instilled something different in the team -- self-confidence -- which has the potential to take them much further.
In the end, of course, the only true measure of progress for the U.S. players is the World Cup -- not whether they get there, but how far they advance once they do. That's the reality, but it’s also a shame. Because whatever happens in Brazil next year, the U.S. team playing right now is a whole lot of fun to watch, which should count for something.
The U.S. has historically been heavily dependent on the counter-attack, which as a tactic can help paper over a team’s inferior abilities. This squad still likes to counter, but these players also create their own attacks -- and can even finish them. They play possession soccer. They win balls in the air. (See last night’s first goal.) They maneuver in tight spaces, with flashes of heretofore unseen skill. (See the Mix Diskerud turn that set up last night’s second goal.) They defend. (Though, okay, our MLS-heavy back line could be in for a rude awakening down the road.)
The team is also deep, as we saw last night against Mexico, when Klinsmann had to make do without four of his top players due to suspensions and injuries. The U.S. team has always hustled and played with grit, but now they're playing with confidence and -- yes -- even style.
What U.S. soccer lacks in international trophies, it more than makes up in so-called “turning points” -- those moments when the team pivots a wee bit closer toward the distant dream of World Cup victory. I’m not going to add last night’s game to the long list. You can only learn so much from a team's performance against relatively weak competition, especially in a game like soccer, which tends to ruthlessly expose flaws. True soccer powerhouses await. (Mexico will no doubt pull itself together and soon join their ranks.) The U.S. team hasn’t done anything yet that it doesn’t always do on the way to eventual elimination. But there’s no harm in thinking that it might.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)