SEATTLE -- It all starts one year from Wednesday. On a patch of grass in a sold-out stadium in São Paulo, Brazil, the 20th FIFA World Cup will kick off on June 12, 2014, when the host country meets ... the United States?
You never know. CONCACAF teams have been involved in the opening match of the last two World Cups, with Mexico tying South Africa in 2010 and Costa Rica falling to Germany in 2006. So use your imagination for a moment and, if you're a U.S. fan, ask yourself: How comfortable would you be with this U.S. team's chances of going toe-to-toe with the five-time World Cup champions on Brazilian soil?
The U.S. has every right to feel good about its position in World Cup qualifying after Tuesday's 2-0 win against Panama here vaulted the Americans (3-1-1, 10 points) into first place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. Mexico, the region's other traditional boss, is two points behind the U.S. (1-0-5, 8 points) despite having played one more game.
More than just earning results, though, the U.S. showed against Panama the kind of fluid team performance -- from back to front -- that suggests coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team is reaching a new level in its progress toward Brazil 2014. But how close is the U.S. to where it wants to be a year from now? It's one thing to beat Jamaica and Panama, but could these Americans hang with Brazil?
KINGSTON, Jamaica, June 6 -- The question is a simple one, at least on the face of things, and yet there's so much that's complicated below the surface. Do you think the U.S. has improved since Klinsmann took over nearly two years ago?
Michael Bradley purses his lips, narrows his blue eyes and says ... nothing. For 19 seconds he remains silent. It's not that he's shutting down. Far from it. You can almost hear the gears of his brain whirring in this Jamaican hotel ballroom, processing all the possible responses in the same way that he processes decisions on the field.
For Bradley, the U.S.' 25-year-old midfield general, the question is even more complex than for others. Bradley is fiercely proud of his father, former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, and his achievements from 2007 to '11 in charge of the national team: winning a World Cup group ahead of England; beating Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup before losing 3-2 to Brazil in the final; finishing first in the 2009 CONCACAF Hexagonal.
But Michael Bradley is also relentless in the pursuit of his own growth as a player, to say nothing of the U.S. team's rise. And so, after 19 seconds of silence, he finally speaks.
"There's improvement, for sure," said the AS Roma player. "When you look at individual players -- Clint [Dempsey], Timmy [Howard], Jermaine [Jones], Jozy [Altidore] -- you have a group of guys who over the course of two or three years have moved themselves up the ladder, are playing at a higher level, are more consistent. When you talk about improvement as a team, it still comes down to each guy taking what they do and improving it and making it count for that much more at a higher level. So in those ways, yeah, we're improving."
"When you look at things more from the standpoint of the team, I think everybody would be quick to admit that at times it's been a little bit too inconsistent," Bradley went on. "There have been a lot of good games, games where you walk off the field feeling like, 'This is what we want, this is what we talked about, we're going in the right direction.' But too easily things get thrown off track for whatever reason."
"When you talk about being a team that can compete at the highest level, a team that can beat the best teams in the world consistently, a team that can go into a World Cup thinking we're playing four or five or six games as opposed to three, then this consistency, this maturity, is something that has to improve," Bradley continued. "We now have a year still before the World Cup, a year that includes important qualifiers to put us in the World Cup. There has been improvement, but there has to be more."
SEATTLE, June 10 -- If you ask Klinsmann the ways in which the U.S. has improved in the past two years, you probably shouldn't be ready for too much in the way of specifics. For some, this is frustrating. A guy who came into the job in August 2011 promising big changes in the way the U.S. played -- a more "proactive" attack against the top teams, among other things -- doesn't always speak in those terms anymore. Perhaps it's because Klinsmann has gotten to know his players better by now, but he sounds sort of Bradley-esque (Bob and Michael) even when he may claim to be otherwise.
"It's a question of consistency," Klinsmann said, when it comes to turning the U.S. into a top-10 or top-15 team in the world. "The team already showed in the past that on a given day they can beat Spain, like they did in the Confederations Cup. "But if you really want to be in the top 10 one day, you have to be consistent in everything you do, if it's the friendlies, the Gold Cup, the World Cup qualifiers. It's the signals you send out to all the opponents around the globe.
"You take it all apart as a coaching staff and say, 'OK, where are we tactically? Technically? Where are we individually with every one of them? Where are their limits? How far can they go?'
"At the same time, it's also important that the organization itself around the senior national team becomes really professional and does everything the right way. We've been down to Brazil already looking at infrastructure [for the U.S. training base]. We were probably the first one ... So there are many elements that we are constantly working on. What you're trying to do is to build a culture of being constantly focused. Don't switch off, not even in the 89th minute in Jamaica on an offside free kick. Those are things where the big teams in the world, they don't switch off, not even for one second.
"So we still see where we have to improve, what we have to do. It's a cultural process, what's going on, and that's what we started two years ago in a different way than Bob [Bradley] did before. And hopefully it comes to a very good point next year in Brazil."
Do you want more specifics on the U.S.' improvement? You probably won't get many right now. And maybe that's just fine. Maybe it does just come down to results and consistency once the World Cup starts one year from Wednesday. Maybe it comes down to maximizing the U.S. players' best traits, the ones they're developing at the club level as they continue climbing the ladder.
If so, that may not exactly be reinventing the wheel. It sounds sort of Bradley-esque, in fact. Let the results and the methods speak for themselves. These days things are going well in Klinsmann's U.S. operation. If he can continue summoning such performances in Brazil next year, he just might be worth his $2.5 million a year salary.