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USMNT must regain its identity in 2016 as disappointing year ends

After a disappointing year, the United States Men’s National Team must buck its downward trend in 2016

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad — For any of us who’ve been covering the U.S. national team for a long time, we’ve seen enough games in Central America and the Caribbean to know that the U.S. will be perfectly fine in World Cup qualifying as long as it wins its home games and gets at least a tie in its road games.

That’s especially the case when the opponent is a decent one—as Trinidad and Tobago is these days—and so the U.S.’s 0–0 tie on Tuesday shouldn’t do anything to prevent it from going ahead and advancing from a relatively easy group that also includes Guatemala and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

That said, there’s an empty feeling that comes from squandering a good chance to grab three points away in the Caribbean in the same way that the U.S. energized its Hexagonal campaign in 2013 by winning late in Jamaica. After that shot in the arm in the form of Brad Evans’s big strike, the U.S. sailed through the Hexagonal and qualified easily for Brazil 2014.

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It also wasn’t hard to forget the last time the U.S. played in Trinidad, in a 2009 qualifier, when Ricardo Clark’s goal gave the U.S. a 1–0 win and big momentum in that qualifying effort.

Expectations have been raised, and so the old tie-on-the-road saw, while still mathematically true, feels different in an emotional sense for fans when that tie actually happens. The U.S. has set a higher bar in recent years.

Such was the case on Tuesday. The U.S. had a few more chances than the hosts did, and Gyasi Zardes should have put away at least one of his two open looks in front of the goal. But he didn’t, and the U.S. left the match with the even-keeled response you’d expect from an unlovely game that still yielded a useful point in the standings.

“These games are always the same,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley afterward. “What makes them different is if you take your chance. You know they’re going to be hard games. They’re not always going to be pretty.… If you’re able on the day to take your chance, then obviously the result can look different and can come away with three points. If you don’t take your chance, it’s vital that you’re defensively solid and able to at worst come out with a 0–0.”

Or as goalkeeper Tim Howard put it: “Exactly how we figured it would go. Tight game, point on the road. All is well, I think. We had the better chances. I thought their threat was aerial, and we dealt with it real well. I thought defensively we were good.”

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann called it “a tricky game.... But overall a tie is all right. It keeps us in first place in the group.”

In the bigger picture, though, 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.

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After the game, I said to Bradley: “This has been a tough year. What particular things do you want to see get better in 2016?”

Answered Bradley: “There’s a lot to that question and a lot to that answer.... Honestly, we play to win. We play to win big games, and on that end certainly we have to call a spade a spade, and we came up short this year. Look, there’s nothing we can do about it now. We have to use it all as experiences to move ourselves forward.

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“Next year is a big year,” he continued. “Lot of qualifying dates, Copa América on our home soil that everybody has been looking forward to for a very long time. And we continue to push. But like I said, that’s the life of a professional athlete. This is what it means to put yourself out there. It doesn’t always go perfect, but again, we still have a belief in ourselves and a mentality that means even in tough times we continue to stick together and push.”

Bradley still thinks the U.S. retains some of the identity that has made it a hard team to play against in the past: supremely fit, unwilling to give up in any circumstance and, at least in CONCACAF, a team that uses its belief, athleticism and, yes, talent, to qualify for World Cups without much trouble.

But in 2015, we saw a U.S. team that had lost a lot of that identity. It wasn’t always a hard team to play against. Shockingly, it wasn’t even as fit as it used to be, at least according to Klinsmann. The lowest moment might have been seeing players look like they were giving up in the second half of a friendly against Brazil. But there were other candidates. The Gold Cup elimination against Jamaica on home soil. The gut-punch defeat to Mexico.

There were some bright spots. The friendly wins at the Netherlands and Germany. The emergence of Zardes from the January camp. And, late in the year, the buzz surrounding the arrival of Darlington Nagbe, who sounds like he was even more impressive in training sessions than the minutes he got as a sub on the field.

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“I hate to overhype [Nagbe],” said Howard. “I just think America doesn’t produce a lot of those real shifty players, who get their foot on the ball, make people miss. It’s not always spectacular, it’s just a little shift here and there to unbalance the defense. I like him. I like him a lot.”

Said Klinsmann of Nagbe: “We’ve found a player who knows how to play, who knows how to take care of the ball.... He’s very comfortable in either direction on the ball, and he gives us a bit more flow in the game because he simply connects the passes.”

And so a difficult year ends for the USMNT. Klinsmann appears to have kept his job. Would that have happened in most soccer countries? Probably not. But the U.S. is not your typical soccer country, and you could argue Klinsmann was hired with a wider-ranging job description than most national team coaches.

But Klinsmann, too, will have pressure on him in 2016. Klinsmann the technical director will have to hope the U.S. Under-23 team can rally to qualify for the Olympics. And Klinsmann the coach will have to ensure progression in World Cup qualifying—he said he wants six points from the home-and-home against Guatemala in March—while also drawing from his team a convincing (perhaps even inspiring) performance in the Copa América Centenario.

But once again, the trends, they do not look good. That has to change in 2016.