Is this the same team that made so much progress with its run to the Confederations Cup final? Yes. Is this the same team that got blown out in Costa Rica 3-1 and then started the Confed Cup with back-to-back demoralizing losses to Italy and Brazil? Again, yes.
So which is the real U.S.? The answer is probably somewhere in between. When the Americans play together and execute Bob Bradley's game plan, they've shown they can beat anybody, as they did in that 2-0 shocker over world No. 1 Spain in June. When they're rattled emotionally, they have a tendency to hang their heads.
Here is the good and the bad of how the U.S. has performed recently:
GOOD: They can explode for an early first goal against any team.CharlieDavies' ninth-minute goal against Mexico -- for the U.S.' first-ever lead at Azteca -- was a thing of beauty. So was Jozy Altidore's turn and shuck of Spain's Joan Capdevila in the Confed Cup semis for the goal that ended up being the difference. And Clint Dempsey's shock strike in the final against Brazil had the five-time World Cup champs on their heels.
BAD: They can't hold a lead against big opponents. What good is an early goal when you can't sit back and either absorb pressure or wait for an opening for another strike? Twice in the Confed Cup, the Americans weren't able to hold on to an early advantage, and Wednesday's letdown at Estadio Azteca was another example.
"We went up early and kind of sat back," Dempsey said after the 2-1 loss to Mexico. "That's kind of been a pattern with us."
GOOD: They're getting a better grasp of how to work the counterattack. Italy has won four World Cups by sitting on its opponents and waiting for an opening to break with speed and take advantage of another team's mistakes. The U.S.' second goal against Brazil, the give-and-go between Davies and Landon Donovan, was one of the best sequences I can remember by any U.S. squad. That's not to say the U.S. should become Italy, but the ability to make other teams pay for their mistakes is a huge psychological advantage.
BAD: They still can't play the possession game. The Americans were dominated in possession by the Mexicans on Wednesday. That's the best example of the gulf that still exists between the archrivals' style of soccer. While much of that is probably thanks to how winded the Yanks got in the high altitude, it's another factor in why they can't hold a lead or score goals off the run of play. The best teams in the world are fantastic at holding the ball. The U.S. isn't there yet.
"We need to have better concentration levels when the ball turns over and possess it better ourselves, and better concentration at the end of the game," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said.
GOOD: They're nearly unbeatable at home. Between World Cup qualifying, the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup (but not the '09 edition, featuring a B team) and international friendlies, the U.S. has lost only once in 24 home games since the '06 World Cup (the exception being a 4-2 defeat to Brazil in a friendly in Chicago in September '07). Considering how often the U.S. is a "road" team in its own stadiums, that's very encouraging. A 2-1 comeback victory against Honduras in June, for instance, was played in front of a heavily tilted Honduran crowd at Solider Field. Even the U.S.' old standby -- playing Mexico in Columbus, Ohio -- didn't provide the same advantage last February: Almost half the crowd was pro-Mexico. And still, the U.S. got the win.
BAD: They can't win on the road in uninviting places. From being surprised for two early goals in El Salvador, to getting run over at Costa Rica, to succumbing to the elements at Azteca, the song remains the same for the U.S. In hostile stadiums with loud crowds and horrible conditions, the Americans have a seriously tough time. They've won only three of 18 road games over the last four Hexagonals.
It's probably not fair to ask any team to march into Estadio Saprissa or Azteca and come out on top -- I'd love to see the look of shock on Frank Lampard's face as he came out of the tunnel if England had a road game at Mexico's fortress of fury. But if you want to become a powerhouse team, you have to be able to deal with any variable, any kind of conditions, and come into a road game confident that you can win it.
"It's nice to win on the road," U.S. keeper Tim Howard said. "That's icing on the cake, but we're not the only team that finds it difficult. There's something about playing on the road that's very, very hard."
The conclusion here? While the U.S. has taken a step forward over the past few months, it still has yet to completely shed its reputation as Not Ready for Prime Time. In many ways, we won't know for sure until the draw for South Africa 2010 goes down in December. If the Yanks get a Group of Death like they did at Germany '06, it may not matter how far they've come.
For now, all the U.S. can do is concentrate on qualifying, and that means putting the loss to Mexico in the rear view. And that starts on Sept. 5 against El Salvador in Sandy, Utah, and continues four days later against Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain. Both are very winnable games, and victories in both would leave the U.S. sitting pretty with 16 points through eight Hexagonal matches, on the doorstep of qualifying for its sixth straight World Cup.
"You know coming in that these 10 games are going to be difficult games and you're going to have to play hard for all 10 to be in the World Cup," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "It's not anything we didn't expect, and now, in a few weeks, we'll get ready for two more difficult games that are very important."