As much fun as the recent wins over Germany and the Netherlands were—and fun, lest we forget, remains a small part of the reason we watch and play the game—it’s almost impossible to reflect on the spectacle that was a pair of come-from-behind victories, six goals, Michael Bradley and Bobby Wood and not wonder whether the past week was an outlier or harbinger for the U.S. national team.
Any attempt to evaluate friendlies is fraught with caveats and exceptions. Players are missing, coaches are experimenting and 100% effort isn’t guaranteed.
Did the Dutch disappear in the final 20 minutes of their 4-3 loss to the U.S. because the Americans were superior, or because the hosts simply lost cohesion and interest?
Germany captain Bastian Schweinsteiger told reporters following Wednesday's 2-1 defeat, “I believe that if we had been up for it and on a normal fitness level, we'd have won the match today.”
Schweinsteiger and his teammates were a few days removed from a long club campaign and faced with next to nothing at stake, save preparation for a Euro 2016 qualifier against tiny Gibraltar.
Who’s to say the world champions couldn’t have found another gear or two? (They almost did—Sami Khedira hit the crossbar in stoppage time.)
Then again, look who was on the field for last year’s World Cup gold and bronze medalists, from Robin van Persie and Memphis Depay to Mesut Özil and Mario Götze. The Netherlands and Germany are deep, experienced and consistently contending, and in many ways represent everything Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to build in the U.S. The coach's progress was in question as recently as March, when late breakdowns, a sluggish attack and a lack of any obvious or steady tactical identity left many wondering where this “year of transition” was leading.
The U.S. was 2-6-4 between the World Cup win over Ghana and April’s “dos-a-cero” defeat of Mexico in San Antonio.
Klinsmann always pointed to next month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup as the destination. Then, as it seemed to approach too quickly, his team went out and shocked the Dutch and Germans, and did so deservedly. There was a shaky opening in both games and some obvious problems in defense. But the U.S. improved over time, attacked with confidence and finished off scoring chances with confidence and aplomb. The six goals came without the unavailable Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore—by far the program’s active leading scorers—on the field.
But was it a fluke, or was it a timely manifestation of Klinsmann’s long-term plan? The answer, of course, surely is somewhere in the middle. These were mere exhibitions, albeit against talented teams. But they were won in a manner that bodes well for the U.S. There were a couple trends, whether planned or organic, that should leave supporters feeling optimistic.
One is the emergence of Bradley as a box-to-box, playmaking force. The 27-year-old was dominant for significant stretches in both games, and after tearing through Holland in the second half last week, he helped set up both goals against Germany. The first came on a perfectly-placed, lofted ball to Mix Diskerud (who finished beautifully) and the second on a dribble and pass to Brad Evans, who then found Wood for the game-winner. Bradley can carve you open with the long ball or do it on the run.
Klinsmann wasn’t wrong about Bradley’s ability to orchestrate an attack. It simply may have been the timing and structure that were a bit off. The manager’s decision to change Bradley’s role so profoundly on the eve of the 2014 World Cup was hard on both the player and the rest of the team. Bradley wasn’t entirely accustomed to the position, and the lack of consistent wide support, plus Jermaine Jones’ box-to-box role, left him crowded or with too much to do. He wasn’t at his best in Brazil.
Things have changed over the past year. Bradley has grown into the role, both with the U.S. and at Toronto FC, where he’s the day-to-day fulcrum and leader of his team. That matters. Although Klinsmann seemed reluctant to bless Bradley’s MLS transfer, the coach’s wish to see Bradley play a primary rather than complementary role is more likely to be fulfilled if he’s doing it year-round. Pressure becomes commonplace. The understanding of how to influence or change the course of a game across the entire field becomes more engrained. The vision and touch required to jumpstart the attack becomes more natural.
In turn, Klinsmann helped Bradley this week by deploying a stay-at-home defensive midfielder (the U.S. was especially effective once Kyle Beckerman entered the Germany match) and reliable outlets on the flanks. Bradley did well against the Dutch with Alfredo Morales in a supporting central role and on his own in a 4-4-2 with Gyasi Zardes and Mix Diskerud out wide. With multiple, more predictable outlets, Bradley was in a better position to succeed.
And it all came together in Amsterdam and Cologne.
“He just took it to another level,” Klinsmann said of Bradley. “People were just thinking, ‘Holy moly, this guy is unstoppable.’ He’s just taking it to Germany and he’s kind of giving the team so much energy and so much belief that you can actually make a surprise happen, and we kind of made two surprises happen with in a couple of days.”
Another positive development that’s likely no accident is the emergence of younger, untested talent that had the temperament for the international game, if not the comfort. Klinsmann clearly believes the latter can be developed. He launched his overhaul of Germany in 2004 by looking for dynamic, confident but unproven players. The 23-man team that won bronze at the 2006 World Cup featured eight players aged 22 or younger. Germany’s 2002 team had two.
Not every young international becomes a veteran one, of course. But Klinsmann’s history suggests he wants players with the athleticism and confidence to put an opponent on the back foot, and that he believes he can influence and groom those players within a national team set-up.
Zardes’s performances against Holland and Germany were much-improved over his March displays against Denmark and Switzerland. He was almost always involved and frequently a threat. DeAndre Yedlin, after a slow half-season at Tottenham, continued to show flashes of his potential as a game-breaking winger, and Wood’s contributions were stunning and spectacular. His finish in Cologne was world class.
Center back John Brooks had a much better game against Germany than he did in Amsterdam, suggesting a quick learning curve. Aron Jóhannsson, now with only 11 caps, showed off some nice skill and an ability to read the play and combine with teammates.
Young internationals will stumble (see Julian Green), but it looks like Klinsmann has an eye for those who will get back up and contribute. And with youth comes speed and brashness. The U.S. was outpossessed badly by both the Netherlands (62%-38%) and Germany (64%-36%). But it hardly mattered, since the Americans were more efficient and threatening with the ball.
“The biggest thing that we take away … is the mental side of it. That we actually start to lose fear or having just too much respect for big names because of who they are and what they did in the past,” Klinsmann said. “We had too much for respect for Germany in Recife in the World Cup, and we had too much respect, probably, for most of the time during the game against Belgium, and we need to lose that respect in a way that we kind of give them eye-to-eye confrontation and make it an aggressive battle.”
There are concerns, naturally. Players like Dempsey, Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya remain vital to the national team’s prospects and identity. The defense remains in disarray—no preferred back four has emerged—and Klinsmann will have to make do at the Gold Cup without Jones and Geoff Cameron. World Cup starters Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have earned a combined three caps in 2015. We likely haven’t seen Klinsmann’s genuine first-choice 11, which means championship-winning chemistry is going to have to be established relatively quickly. The U.S. will meet Guatemala in a July 3 friendly before kicking off the tournament four days later against Honduras.
So many quotes that came out of the U.S. camp during the past few days revolved around confidence, and how the two wins will give the U.S. loads of it heading into the Gold Cup. But it shouldn’t need that boost. The Americans already are the kings of CONCACAF. They breezed through the 2013 tournament and have won three of the past five overall. They finished first in each of the past two Hexagonals and haven’t lost to Mexico in nearly four years. The U.S. should expect to win the Gold Cup.
Instead, the additional confidence should be focused internally. There, many players still wonder about Klinsmann’s unconventional methods—about whether there’s a point to the nutrition and martial arts classes or the constant tactical tinkering. And Klinsmann has expressed his reservations about whether his players’ career choices or the relative lack of day-to-day pressure faced at the club level are suitable for a national team with top-10 ambition.
If the wins over the Dutch and Germans have any long-term impact, beyond the memories and the highlights, it will be inside the locker room. There, more faith in the process, more trust in each other and a shared sense of a clearly defined mission and trajectory very well may do wonders for the U.S. If that happens, than it doesn’t really matter whether 4-3 and 2-1 were flukes.
Said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, “These two games, we were able to use in terms of confidence, in terms of our belief, in terms of our team spirit, it’s good to be able to get two huge, huge results.”
The Year in Photos: U.S. Soccer in 2015
U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
Paul Arriola (7) celebrates his goal in a World Cup qualifying playoff match vs. El Salvador. The U.S. U-20s cemented their place in the World Cup with a 2-0 win. They drew host New Zealand, Ukraine and Myanmar in their summer group.
USMNT vs. Chile, January 28
Bobby Wood flies high in the USA's 3-2 loss to Chile, which opened the calendar year for the national team. Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore scored in the loss.
USMNT vs. Panama, February 8
Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey celebrate after combining for a goal against Panama at StubHub Center to cap off winter training camp with a 2-0 victory.
USWNT vs. France, February 8
Lori Chalupny (left) and the USWNT had a tough time keeping pace with Jessica Houara (center) and France in a 2-0 loss in a friendly in Lorient. The match was the first of two played without suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo.
USWNT vs. England, February 13
Alex Morgan celebrates scoring the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over England in a friendly at Stadium mk in Milton Keynes.
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
The USWNT opens the Algarve Cup with a 2-1 win over Norway, marking Hope Solo's return from a 30-day suspension with a come-from-behind victory. Carli Lloyd scored both goals for the Americans.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
Alex Morgan celebrates her goal in the USWNT's 3-0 win over Switzerland in the Algarve Cup group stage.
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
Alex Morgan and the USWNT were frustrated by Iceland, held to a 0-0 draw to wrap up group play at the Algarve Cup. The result was still enough to put the Americans in the final against France.
USWNT vs. France, March 11
The U.S. women's national team celebrates winning the Algarve Cup after a 2-0 triumph over France. Julie Johnston and Christen Press scored, and Hope Solo saved a penalty kick.
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
The U.S. U-17 national team celebrates qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup after defeating Jamaica on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw in a playoff match.
USMNT vs. Denmark, March 25
U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando expresses his frustration after one of Nicklas Bendtner's three goals in Denmark's 3-2 win over the Americans. Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson scored for the USA.
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31
Jozy Altidore watches as Brek Shea hits a perfect free kick to put the USA on the board against Switzerland. The Americans settled for a 1-1 draw.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, April 4
Lori Chalupny (16) celebrates her goal vs. New Zealand with Lauren Holiday at St. Louis's Busch Stadium. The goal opened the floodgates for a late outburst en route to a 4-0 U.S. victory in front of more than 35,000 fans.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Jordan Morris etched his name in U.S.-Mexico lore, as the Stanford University forward scored in his first senior national team start to break a scoreless draw against El Tri at the Alamodome.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Juan Agudelo collapses to the ground in celebration after his goal at the Alamodome gave the USA a familiar lead over Mexico: Dos-a-Cero.
U.S. U-23 vs. Mexico, April 22
Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil captains the USA to a 3-0 win over Mexico at StubHub Center in Olympic qualifying preparation for both CONCACAF favorites.
USWNT vs. Ireland, May 10
Abby Wambach celebrates one of her two goals vs. Ireland as the USWNT took a 3-0 win on Mother's Day at Avaya Stadium.
USWNT vs. Mexico, May 17
Sydney Leroux is congratulated by her teammates after one of her two goals in a 5-1 pre-World Cup rout of Mexico at StubHub Center.
U.S. U-20 vs. Myanmar, May 30
Maki Tall celebrates his equalizer for the USA as part of a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Myanmar to open the U-20 World Cup group stage in New Zealand.
USWNT vs. South Korea, May 30
Carli Lloyd gets off a shot through traffic in the USA's final World Cup send-off friendly, a 0-0 draw against South Korea at Red Bull Arena.
U.S. U-23 in Toulon Tournament, May-June
Alonso Hernandez, left, takes on Qatar, while Julian Green, right, vies for the ball against France in the Toulon Tournament as part of Olympic qualifying preparations.
U.S. U-20 vs. New Zealand, June 2
Gedion Zelalem controls the ball against New Zealand in the USA's 4-0 win that cemented a place in the U-20 World Cup knockout stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Ukraine, June 5
From left, Joel Soñora, Gedion Zelalem and Rubio Rubin show frustration during a 3-0 loss to Ukraine that wrapped up group play in the U-20 World Cup.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
DeAndre Yedlin and Danny Williams salute each other after the latter's goal–his first international strike–brought the U.S. level with the Netherlands at 3-3 in the 89th minute.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
Bobby Wood puts the finishing touch on an epic comeback, with his 90th-minute strike capping a wild 4-3 win for the USA over the Netherlands. The USA trailed 3-1 in the 71st minute.
U.S. U-23 vs. England, June 7
USA defender Boyd Okwuonu makes a tackle on England's Duncan Watmore in the Toulon Tournament third-place game. The U.S. U-23s won 2-1, sealing their best finish in the tournament.
USWNT vs. Australia, June 8, WWC
Megan Rapinoe lets out a yell after her second goal, which sealed the USA's 3-1 win over Australia to open Group D play in the Women's World Cup.
U.S. U-20 vs. Colombia, June 10
Rubio Rubin celebrates the goal that gives the USA a 1-0 win over Colombia in the FIFA U-20 World Cup round of 16. Zack Steffen's late penalty save preserved the win, as the Americans reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
Michael Bradley was everywhere against World Cup champion Germany, assisting on Mix Diskerud's equalizer and commanding the midfield in a 2-1 win in Cologne.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
For the second straight game, Bobby Wood came off the bench and scored a stunning winner. He watches his long-range blast beat Ron-Robert Zieler in a 2-1 win over world No. 1 Germany.
USWNT vs. Sweden, June 12
Julie Johnston wins the header in a dominant showing on the U.S. back line, helping the Americans preserve a 0-0 draw against Sweden in the second game of the Women's World Cup group stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Serbia, June 13
U.S. players' emotions say it all after a gut-wrenching loss to Serbia in penalty kicks at the U-20 World Cup. After a 0-0 draw, the Americans fell 6-5 in PKs, despite Zack Steffen's two saves in sudden death.
USWNT vs. Nigeria, June 16
Abby Wambach leaps for joy after scoring in the 45th minute off Megan Rapinoe's corner kick, which delivered a 1-0 win to the USA and first place in Group D of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Colombia, June 22
Alex Morgan's goal broke a 0-0 draw, provided relief after Abby Wambach's PK miss and helped the U.S. women to the World Cup quarterfinals after a 2-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16.
USWNT vs. China, June 26
While Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates her goal in the distance, stalwart center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn rejoice in the goal that put the USA into the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Germany, June 30
Carli Lloyd yells in celebration after scoring the penalty that put the USA up over Germany en route to a 2-0 victory in the Women's World Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, July 3
DeAndre Yedlin and Jozy Altidore, wearing special jerseys with stars-and-stripes numbers for July 4, celebrate after a Guatemala own goal gifts the USA a 1-0 lead during a 4-0 win in Nashville, Tennessee, prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Carli Lloyd sets the tone with a third-minute goal in the Women's World Cup final against Japan, the first of her three strikes within 16 minutes that lifted the USA to a 5-2 win and its first title in 16 years.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
U.S. players rush the field after the final whistle, which sealed their 5-2 triumph over Japan and a record third World Cup title.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Victorious, the U.S. women's national team raises the World Cup trophy for the third time, but the first in 16 years, after completing a 5-2 win over Japan in the final at Vancouver's BC Place.
USMNT vs. Honduras, July 7
Clint Dempsey leaps in celebration of his second goal in the USA's Gold Cup opener against Honduras. The Americans won 2-1, fending off a late Honduras surge to collect all three points in the start of their title defense.
USA vs. Haiti, July 10
Clint Dempsey (8) is congratulated by his teammates after a 47th-minute goal gave the USA a 1-0 win over Haiti in the Gold Cup. Gyasi Zardes, second from left, came on at halftime and assisted, and the win clinched first place in Group A.
USMNT vs Panama, July 13
Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley, right, celebrate after the latter's goal in the USA's 1-1 draw vs. Panama, which wrapped up group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USMNT vs. Cuba, July 18
The U.S. men put on a clinic against an overmatched Cuba in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, with Clint Dempsey's hat trick leading the way in a 6-0 rout. Gyasi Zardes, Aron Johannsson and Omar Gonzalez also scored.
USMNT vs. Jamaica, July 22
A downtrodden Clint Dempsey and Jurgen Klinsmann walk off the field as Jamaica celebrates a stunning 2-1 win over the USA in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Panama, July 25
Michael Bradley walks away in dismay after having a penalty saved in a PK shootout in the USA's loss to Panama in the Gold Cup third-place game. After a 1-1 draw, Panama prevailed 3-2 in PKs, the USA's first shootout in 10 years.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 16
Meghan Klingenberg waves a Terrible Towel in her hometown of Pittsburgh after scoring one of the USA's many goals in an 8-0 rout of Costa Rica in its first game since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 19
Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara celebrate during a second rout of Costa Rica in three days, this one a 7-2 win in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
USA U-23 vs. England U-21, Sept. 3
U.S. U-23 goalkeeper Zack Steffen looks on in disappointment as England U-21 forward James Wilson celebrates with Duncan Watmore after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 friendly win in England.
USMNT vs. Peru, Sept. 4
Jozy Altidore, right, is congratulated after one of his two goals that sparked the USA's come-from-behind win over Peru at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
USA U-23 vs. Qatar, Sept. 8
Gedion Zelalem made his U-23 debut off the bench in the USA's 2-0 win over Qatar in England in the final tune-up before Olympic qualifying
USMNT vs. Brazil, Sept. 8
Neymar and Marcelo celebrate while DeAndre Yedlin and Ventura Alvarado look away in disgust during Brazil's 4-1 rout of the USA at Gillette Stadium.
USWNT vs. Haiti, Sept. 17, 20
Carli Lloyd scored hat tricks in both games and NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn scored her first international goals as the USWNT beat Haiti 5-0 and 8-0 in a pair of friendlies in Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. Haiti replaced on-strike Australia as a last-minute opponent.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 1
Jerome Kiesewetter, left, and Emerson Hyndman, right, sandwich Jordan Morris after his first-minute goal in the USA's 3-1 win over Canada in their Olympic qualifying opener.
USA U-23 vs. Cuba, October 3
Cameron Carter-Vickers gets congratulated by Jerome Kiesewetter and Emerson Hyndman after opening the scoring in a 6-1 rout of Cuba in their Olympic qualifying match. The USA cemented its place in the semifinal round with the win.
USA U-23 vs. Panama, October 6
There was plenty of credit to go around, as the Americans finished off a perfect group run in Olympic qualifying with a 4-0 win over Panama. Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter came on at halftime and provided the spark needed to seize the three points.
USA U-23 vs. Honduras, October 10
Wil Trapp's reaction says it all, as the USA failed to secure an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics after falling to Honduras 2-0 in the semifinals of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Captain Michael Bradley leads the USA out onto the field ahead of the Americans' CONCACAF Cup playoff vs. Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Geoff Cameron beats Rafa Marquez to the spot and heads home a 15th-minute equalizer off a free kick from Michael Bradley, negating a Chicharito goal five minutes earlier in the CONCACAF Cup playoff between USA and Mexico.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
U.S. forward Bobby Wood celebrates his 108th-minute goal vs. Mexico that brought the Americans level at 2-2 after Oribe Peralta had given El Tri the lead in extra time. That reprieve would only last for 10 minutes, though.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 13
Marc Pelosi (15) celebrates after his goal breaks the deadlock and sends the U.S. U-23s on their way to a 2-0 win over Canada in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying third-place game. The U.S. still has a chance to reach Rio, but it'll have to go through Colombia in a playoff.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, October 13
Tim Howard can't watch as Costa Rica players celebrate Joel Campbell's goal in a 1-0 friendly win at Red Bull Arena. The match marked Howard's return to the U.S. goal for the first time since the 2014 World Cup round of 16.
USA U-17 vs. Nigeria, October 17
Victor Osimhen scores for Nigeria in a 2-0 win over the USA in the teams' FIFA Under-17 World Cup opener in Chile.
USA U-17 vs. Croatia, October 20
USA U-17 midfielder Christian Pulisic watches his opening goal find the back of the net in the Americans' 2-2 draw with Croatia at the World Cup. The U.S. led 2-0 on Pulisic's goal and assist to Brandon Vazquez, but the European side mounted a furious rally to salvage a point.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 21
Shannon Boxx, right, passes off the captain's armband to Carli Lloyd in her final act as a player, riding into retirement in the first half of a 1-1 draw against Brazil in Seattle.
USA U-17 vs. Chile, October 23
USA U-17 captain Hugo Arellano sits dejected after a 4-1 loss to host Chile eliminated the Americans from the World Cup in the group stage.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 25
The USA said goodbye to two more veterans, with Lauren Holiday, left, and Lori Chalupny ending their careers during a 2-1 win over Brazil in Orlando. The team improved to 5-0-1 on its World Cup victory tour with the win.
USWNT at the White House, October 27
President Barack Obama welcomes the World Cup-champion USWNT to the White House, honoring their triumph in Canada.
USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, November 13
Jozy Altidore watches one of his shots head toward goal in the USA's 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the opening of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Altidore scored twice, as the USA overcame a shocking early deficit and won at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
USMNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, November 17
Gyasi Zardes and the U.S. men were held to a 0-0 draw by Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, closing the year with a World Cup qualifying and sitting atop Group C in the semifinal round via goal differential tiebreaker.
USWNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, December 10
Christen Press triumphantly raises her hand after a goal during her hat trick in a 6-0 rout of Trinidad & Tobago at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
USWNT vs. China, December 13
Crystal Dunn leaves her feet to settle a pass in the USA's 2-0 win over China at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Dunn and Christen Press scored the goals.
USWNT vs. China, December 16
Abby Wambach is introduced in the U.S. lineup for the last time at the Superdome in New Orleans, playing in her final match before retiring. She ends her U.S. career with 255 appearances and an international-record 184 goals.