WASHINGTON — A pretty strong case could be made that Oct. 10, 2015, was American soccer’s 21st-century nadir. Hours after the U.S. U-23 team was eliminated from the regional Olympic qualifying tournament with a loss to visiting Honduras, the senior squad fell to arch-rival Mexico at the Rose Bowl. That defeat prevented the U.S. from qualifying for the 2017 Confederations Cup and followed a miserable fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup. Progress at the start of coach/technical director Jurgen Klinsmann’s fifth year in charge wasn’t immediately apparent. There was tension and doubt.
A year to the day later, the U.S. took the field at RFK Stadium—a familiar setting typically more welcoming than the Rose Bowl—under different conditions. Klinsmann and his players were preparing for Tuesday night’s friendly against New Zealand (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, UniMas) a low-profile game at the opposite end of the soccer spectrum from last year’s showdown with Mexico.
But there seems to be a different mood surrounding this U.S. team as well. What once appeared stale and stagnant now feels somewhat revitalized. The key is the development (perhaps overdue) of Klinsmann’s player pool. It wasn’t long ago that there often were starters who didn’t look like they belonged. Now, there’s the genuine competition for spots the manager has coveted.
That’s what makes this otherwise forgettable international window, which also included Friday’s 2-0 win in Cuba, an interesting exercise. And it’s what should leave the U.S. feeling better about its chances when it meets Mexico again as the Hexagonal kicks off on November 11.
Over the past year or so, players like John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood have solidified their international status. They stuck around and improved where others had faltered. Steve Birnbaum, Darlington Nagbe and Kellyn Acosta are among the MLS players who show real promise. Jordan Morris has met the challenge in his first season as a pro. Christian Pulisic and Ethan Horvath rose quickly. Julian Green is sticking it out at Bayern Munich.
Meanwhile, Klinsmann has been better about stressing continuity when necessary and some key veterans are in good spots. He said Monday that the “learning curve through Copa América was huge for all of us.” A first-choice back four was established, and Michael Bradley’s withdrawal to a more conservative position appears to have helped. Omar Gonzalez has been reinvigorated by his move to Pachuca. Jozy Altidore is showing signs of what he can do when healthy, and Sacha Kljestan has come in from the cold. Health and injury issues facing Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones ensure that not everything is rosy, and they are missed. But there’s no panic about how to replace them.
The U.S. has depth, young players making an impression and prospects throughout MLS and some well-known clubs in Europe. This is the start of what Klinsmann wanted. Now he must manage it correctly, because the margin for error will disappear if results don’t go his way in November.
“I think, definitely, our younger players just matured another year. And a year can make a huge difference,” Klinsmann said Monday. “A year in Bobby Wood makes a huge difference. A year in John Brooks, a Yedlin, a Jordan Morris in his first professional year, and then who would have thought we suddenly have a Christian Pulisic, who is almost already a starter with us? And now Julian and these players, we help wherever we can off the field … We wait for the next one coming through, maybe [Sunderland midfielder] Lynden Gooch [against New Zealand], and so I think in that transition that we always talk between two World Cup cycles I think we made a huge step forward over the last year getting these younger [players] pushing more and more.”
Bradley was less interested in reflecting on the past year—“[The media] try to make certain comparisons in moments and in a lot of ways, we just concentrate on what’s in front of us,” he said—but he agreed that the current chemistry seems to be working.
“We have a good group of young guys who continue to push and show that they need to be around the group and involved and a real part of things,” the captain said. “I think the group of experienced veteran players continues to do a good job of showing them the right way and setting the tone. And so, I think in all ways it’s been a good week or so. We want to finish off with a good win [Tuesday] night and as I said, when we come back in November [for the World Cup qualifiers] there will be a unique feel around those two games.”
While the veterans help bring their young teammates along, they’re also challenged by them. Klinsmann loathes entrenchment and entitlement and wants his established players pushed. He said here in Washington that it’s starting to happen.
“It gives them also a feeling that, ‘You know what? He’s giving them opportunities. I don’t want to lose my spot.’ Sacha comes back in and he’s taking a spot. Jermaine has injury problems and suddenly things open up," Klinsmann said. "Who’s the next in line? It makes them think, but it also really gives life to that whole competition. It gives training sessions real meaning because hey, it’s about a spot you know? And it keeps them on their toes in good way … The older ones hang in there and obviously defend their position but again, they’re not getting younger.”
Klinsmann praised Horvath’s senior debut on a rough and rutty field in Havana and said Green, who was consistently dangerous on Friday, “helped himself a lot.” Juan Agudelo is back in form and back with the national team and Terrence Boyd was called in for the first time in two years as he continues his comeback from injury.
“I think that there’s really a lot happening with the younger players,” Klinsmann. “Now we give these younger ones more and more opportunities knowing that when it gets down to November 11 [against Mexico], it’s down to business. It’s down to the result. And if we feel like the older ones are giving us more of a better feeling, then we go with the older ones.”