2015 Year in Review: U.S. men's national team missed its marks
The U.S. men's national team players and coaches have to be as happy as anybody to turn the page on 2015.
Despite some celebratory moments, the team's biggest goals went unachieved, leaving a fresh round of questions for Jurgen Klinsmann. Following a 2014 that was in many ways seen as a rousing success, the perceived steps backward this past year were jagged pills for fans to swallow.
As SI's Grant Wahl wrote after the USA's final match of 2015: "There is plenty of reason for concern about the overall direction of the U.S. men’s program. In competitive games, 2015 was a brutal year for Klinsmann’s team. The U.S. finished fourth in the Gold Cup. It lost the Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico. It was almost always outshot in games that matter against decent teams. The trends, they do not look good."
Here is the year in review for the U.S. men:
The best moments and games for the U.S. came in friendlies, and they were sparked by some unfamiliar sources.
Bobby Wood scored game-winning goals in the 88th minute and beyond in landmark June friendly wins at the Netherlands and Germany. Stanford star Jordan Morris made good on a surprise first international start against Mexico in San Antonio, scoring the opener in the latest dos-a-cero triumph over El Tri.
Another win for the U.S. involved the commitment of Gedion Zelalem to play for the U.S. over Germany (and Ethiopia), even though the Arsenal product is still not yet cap-tied. Also of note on the player acquisition front was Darlington Nagbe gaining his U.S. citizenship and impressing in his first U.S. camp.
The U.S. also took four points from its first two World Cup qualifying matches, which by definition (the formula for going through is typically win at home, don't lose on the road) is a success, even though some might expect the U.S., at this point, to sweep through its semifinal group of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago with 18 points.
From a record standpoint, the U.S. won half its games, going 10-6-4. Of course, some results carry more weight than others. Which brings us to...
The U.S. men had one true objective, in terms of results, in 2015: Win the Gold Cup to secure CONCACAF's berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. When that plan went by the wayside in stunning fashion–a semifinal loss to Jamaica–the new goal became beating Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup playoff, with the door to Russia 2017 still open thanks to CONCACAF's advent of the 2013 Gold Cup winner facing the 2015 winner for the golden ticket.
When that plan went by the wayside in extra time at the Rose Bowl in a game largely controlled by Mexico, the questions started piling up for Klinsmann.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati stood by his manager and did not send him packing, whereas most international managers in the same situation would have been given an immediate pink slip (especially considering that Klinsmann is responsible for some headstrong choices for his Gold Cup roster).
But, as SI.com's Brian Straus has written, Klinsmann has been brought aboard for a long-term overhaul, one unlikely to be undone by a single result.
The start to 2018 World Cup qualifying offered a chance for the U.S. to turn the page, but even that got off to a rocky beginning. CONCACAF minnow St. Vincent and the Grenadines scored not even five minutes into the opening qualifier in St. Louis. The U.S. turned it on, controlled the game and won handily, but the warning signs still remain, as does the pressure on Klinsmann's shoulders.
The U.S. hardly drops results to non-Mexico CONCACAF teams on U.S. soil, but following the first two wins in Gold Cup group play, the U.S. went onto win only one of six games against confederation foes at home. The lone win was the 6-0 drubbing of Cuba. Aside from that: Two draws against Panama (one being the Gold Cup third-place game, which was lost in penalties); the semifinal loss to Jamaica; the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico; the ensuing friendly vs. Costa Rica.
Despite setting its sights on the global giants, the U.S. neglected to take care of its own backyard. As a result, it's missing out on 2017's World Cup tune-up tournament in Russia and has holes to patch up in 2016.
PODCAST: Putting a cap on USA's 2015
GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015
PLAYER OF THE YEAR - Michael Bradley
This is almost by default. Dempsey scored the most goals (nine) of any player, including seven in the Gold Cup, but he lost his cool in the U.S. Open Cup referee incident, was a non-factor vs. Mexico and was omitted from the squad for the start of World Cup qualifying.
Johnson has enjoyed the best club season of any U.S. player, excelling for Borussia Monchengladbach and scoring big goals in the Champions League and against Bayern Munich, but he was jettisoned from the team after asking to be substituted out of the USA's match vs. Mexico in extra time despite not being injured.
It's hard to dole a Player of the Year honor out under such conflicting circumstances.
That leaves Bradley, the constant centerpiece in the Klinsmann-tactical-direction discussion. He was stable, clutch in the biggest triumphs and helped Toronto FC to its first playoff berth ever. The bar may have been lowered considerably for U.S. players across the board in 2015, but Bradley maintained his typical standard of play.
GOAL OF THE YEAR - Bobby Wood vs. Netherlands
It finished off a remarkable comeback and involved an absolutely insane run from the midfield line by Bradley. The fact that it also involved Morris and Wood was as emblematic as anything of the USA's positives in 2015:
WHAT'S TO COME IN 2016
The biggest challenge in 2016–FIFA investigation pending–is Copa America Centenario, which the USA will host. It provides a great chance for the U.S. to perform on a grand stage against some of the world's finest teams. The Americans will learn their group fate early in 2016 with the draw, but the U.S. is one of four seeded sides (Mexico, Argentina, Brazil being the others) in the top pot, meaning a manageable draw should follow.
The year will begin with the annual January camp (beginning Jan. 4), and friendlies in California against Iceland (Jan. 31) and Canada (Feb. 5) will be followed by consecutive World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in March. The semifinal qualifying round wraps up in September, and the Hexagonal begins in November. Given Klinsmann's track record, you can expect some more high-profile friendlies to take place on the non-WCQ FIFA dates.
One thing to keep in the back of the mind: The possibility of veterans moving on. With the influx of younger players and Father Time lurking for some of the older ones, 2016 could mark the end of a few more notable international careers. The 32-year-old Dempsey, in particular, is one to keep an eye on, especially after Copa America ends. He's still just nine goals shy of Landon Donovan's all-time U.S. scoring mark, but without a Confederations Cup looming in 2017 and with his place, as a 35-year-old, for a potential 2018 World Cup anything but a given, you start to wonder if the end is nearing for Deuce.
Whether 2015 was a success was pretty easy to determine, and how the USA is judged in 2016 will fall squarely on its World Cup qualifying performance and making a deep Copa America run.