WASHINGTON — In sports, team identity can be a tricky thing. What do you want to be about? What are your fundamentals? Your bedrock? And do you achieve the defining characteristics that you’ve set out as a goal for your outfit?
Jurgen Klinsmann announced some audacious plans when he took over the U.S. men’s national team in 2011. He wanted nothing less than for the U.S. to become a proactive team that initiated the attack against elite opponents and made them react. That kind of transformation takes time, of course—lots of it—but it doesn’t mean you have to throw out all the good things that defined the U.S. team pre-Klinsmann.
The memorable U.S. teams have all been hard to play against; fit; tough; hard-working; able to persevere despite missing star players; and, in the end, better than the sum of their parts. But the U.S. team we saw during this summer’s Gold Cup didn’t have much of an identity. There was little to latch onto, and the malaise was palpable in the team’s fourth-place finish.
Identities are never built in one game, of course, but those were shades of the old U.S. priorities that we saw on Friday night, especially in the second half, as the Americans came from behind to beat Peru 2–1 here at RFK Stadium.
You could see it in the way Jozy Altidore kept bulldozing his way into the box, defenders be damned, eventually earning a penalty and scoring twice. You could see it in the way Brad Guzan made a brilliant double-save, enduring a Peruvian kicking along the way, right before the U.S. raced to the other end for the game-winning goal. And you could see it in the way Gyasi Zardes, the revelation of 2015, had the fitness of a marathon runner to keep revving his engines high on the wing late in the game.
Even without Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, the team’s attacking foundation, the U.S. found a way to win the game, the first time the U.S. had ever beaten a South American team after trailing at halftime.
Altidore said something revealing after the game: “For me personally, being involved in this team as long as I have, looking at the past national teams, we’re getting better obviously as a soccer nation, as soccer players. We’re developing better players. But our DNA—what we’ve always been about—is the effort, the spirit.”
“Especially in the second half, you saw. When we make it hard on opponents, this has to be the foundation. We all know that. As good as we’re going to get playing soccer, building out of the back and all those things, that has to be something that we bring to the table each game. I thought in the second half that was the difference.”
A big part of the U.S.’s identity is Jermaine Jones, and it’s no coincidence that he has been missing from the U.S. team for most of the year, including the Gold Cup, with groin issues. Jones returned to the U.S. lineup for the first time since February on Friday, and he made an instant difference. As Klinsmann says, Jones is a tone-setter for the team, a hardass who intimidates opponents in ways no other U.S. player does.
Jones is hard to play against, in other words, and he frustrated Peruvian players from the opening whistle, drawing them out of their game. Klinsmann calls Jones and Bradley the “anchor” of the U.S. midfield, and based on Jones’s 72 minutes on Friday—nearly 30 more than originally planned—he’ll be ready to go 90 against Mexico in the gigantic showdown on Oct. 10.
“I hate to lose, and I try everything [to win],” said Jones on Friday. “Sometimes you can push a team. It was tough watching the Haiti game [in the Gold Cup vs. the U.S.] in Boston live in the stadium. It’s tough to sit outside and you cannot help. But we have now the chance to fix it against Mexico.”
The possibilities for a U.S. team identity, they’re there. World Cup veterans Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler and DeAndre Yedlin made good-old-fashioned U.S.-style plays on Friday. Bradley is coming back in for the Brazil game on Tuesday. Dempsey and his triumph-of-wills approach will return soon, if not this week then in time for USA-Mexico.
Do these developments herald the promised-land identity that Klinsmann talked about in 2011? No. But they do suggest that we may be seeing a return to the values that made the U.S. strong over the years. And that’s a good thing.