The U.S. national team will conclude a long, eventful year on Tuesday afternoon in Vienna, where it will play Austria at the venerable Ernst Happel Stadion, the site of the Euro 2008 decider and four UEFA Champions League/European Cup finals.
Those games represent soccer’s highest echelon. The stadium has been the playground of the entrenched elite. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t been shy about admitting that his team isn’t considered one that competes consistently at that level. But he’s striving to get them there and 2013, at least on paper, represented a significant step.
Regardless of the result on Tuesday, this U.S. team will go down as one of the best in program history. It already has set records for wins (16) and winning percentage (.795) in a calendar year and, of course, finished first in both CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying competition and the Gold Cup, the continental championship.
The Americans have won a record 12 in a row on home soil and were shut out only three times in 22 games. Considering the stagnant start and the confusion and disconnect that once existed inside the locker room, 2013 will be remembered as a successful year that included quite a bit of fun.
When one considers the team beyond the statistics, Klinsmann can take satisfaction in two noteworthy accomplishments. First, as even Landon Donovan discovered, there is competition for playing time throughout the squad that gives Klinsmann multiple potential starters at every position. Second, there now is a genuine belief among the players that the U.S. can stand toe to toe with those elite teams its chasing. It has won in Mexico City, Genoa and Sarajevo. The Americans drew Russia on the road and beat Germany at home.
“From my experience he does give us the sense we can play with everyone on the field and if we show up with the right intensity — he really preaches that, that we have to show up – that if we show up we can win,” defender Omar Gonzalez recently told SI.com.
Considering that progress, Tuesday’s friendly should offer the opportunity for a feel-good final get together before the holidays. But concern surrounds Tuesday’s game as well. Beneath the surface and the streaks, lingering questions remain about the team and tactics Klinsmann will use in Brazil. They won’t be answered this week.
A year ago, we knew that Tim Howard would start in goal and that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones would anchor the midfield. The rest of the team was in flux. Many games and months later, it still is. The deepening talent pool only increases the potential permutations.
Although Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron likely will play together in central defense in Vienna, Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler remains a potential World Cup starter. Chemistry at that position is vital, but no preferred tandem has emerged.
Cameron starts at right back for Stoke City but Klinsmann has opted for Brad Evans, a converted midfielder still confronting with an international learning curve, at that position. There is no player on the U.S. roster for whom the Austria game might be more significant than Eric Lichaj, the Nottingham Forest fullback. But there’s no guarantee that Klinsmann will give Lichaj a run. Time is running out.
There's a similar situation on the other side, where veteran winger DaMarcus Beasley is preferred over the player who's arguably the team's best left back, the injured Fabian Johnson.
In midfield, the manager determined in the spring that dedicated flank players were essential. The three-man central triangle supported primarily by overlapping outside backs is a thing of the past. But that’s where the certainty ends.
If there’s a third man in the middle, he’ll play further forward and behind the striker. But whether that position exists in a given match, and who plays it, depends on myriad factors. Klinsmann has a surplus of forwards, including Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but seems to prefer to deploy Jozy Altidore high and alone.
Dempsey does his best work closer to goal, but he often winds up in a withdrawn role with the U.S.. Donovan is back in the national team fold – a year ago he was on a controversial sabbatical – but he’s appeared only three times this year with Klinsmann’s first-choice squad. The all time leading scorer’s role remains uncertain.
Neither Donovan nor Dempsey is in Vienna. In fact, they’ve yet to start together with Altidore under Klinsmann. Aron Johannsson continues to show promise. He can create in the offensive third, and his assertive and technically proficient play can help involve Altidore in the action. But if Johannsson starts, it’s likely that Donovan (or Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya), will sit and that Dempsey will have to play wide, which he doesn't enjoy. Throw in the fact that Dempsey’s form has slipped following his move to Seattle and a few minor but nagging injuries, and it gets even more confusing.
Versatility is good. Depending on the circumstances or the opponent, the U.S. can shift between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. Players like Donovan, Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and even Herculez Gomez (if he returns) can play up front or out wide. But there are so many uncertainties about the Americans’ most reliable attacking alignment and about which players and formations bring out the best in key contributors, that it’s easy to wonder whether the U.S. is any closer to a World Cup eleven than it was in March. Or if there's even such a thing. Despite all the wins and the cohesion that has developed within the team, Howard, Bradley and Jones remain the only U.S. certainties. The rest of the lineup should be written in pencil. As the U.S. gathers for a final time on Tuesday, it’s worth looking back on a successful and memorable year. But with so many players missing and so many potential combinations still to test, the Austria game also reminds us how many questions remain unanswered.