Jurgen Klinsmann sensed momentum even before his team—sparked by an oft-injured striker, an oft-overlooked playmaker and a teenager who’s coming along faster than even he probably predicted—thumped Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night in Florida.
Winning the game and the group, one of three in CONCACAF’s semifinal stage of World Cup qualifying, meant kicking off the final round in November with two of the toughest, highest-profile tests on the schedule. There’s no easing in when you’ve got arch-rival Mexico at home and then a trip to Costa Rica, where the U.S. national team has lost seven straight games dating back nearly 25 years. You’ve got to hit the ground running. And even before Tuesday’s victory, Klinsmann intended to do just that.
“We badly want to win this game,” he said Monday, knowing there was next to no chance the Americans would be knocked out with a loss or draw. “We want to finish first in our group in order to get straight into a big one in the Hexagonal.”
Klinsmann has always had a “bring ‘em on” mentality, but this may have been more than bravado. There’s been a resurgence in this team since the March loss in Guatemala. It isn’t necessarily easy to pinpoint, but it’s not difficult to sense. The seeds may have been planted over the winter, when Klinsmann loosened the reins during January camp and gave the players a bit more leeway and ownership of their national team experience.
The U.S. then stumbled badly in Guatemala City, sure, but it typically doesn’t get through the semifinal round unscathed and it rebounded in emphatic fashion (Columbus came to the rescue again) with a 4-0 win four days later. Then came the Copa América Centenario run, which started with a loss to Colombia that looks like it did more good than harm. The us-against-the-world mentality forged by that defeat in Santa Clara strengthened bonds within the team and helped carry it to the semifinals.
Despite finishing fourth, Klinsmann praised his players and said they deserved to keep their places ahead of this month’s qualifiers. Injury and suspension impacted those plans. But that, similar to the Colombia loss, may have been a soccer blessing in disguise.
U.S. Soccer in 2016: USMNT and USWNT year in photos
Klinsmann fired, replaced by Arena
Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after the USA's World Cup qualifying loss in Costa Rica, bringing an end to more than five years in charge. He was replaced by Bruce Arena, who returns to the bench after coaching the USA from 1998-2006.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, November 15
The dejected faces on Bobby Wood, left, and John Brooks say it all, as the U.S. drops to 0-2-0 in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal following a 4-0 loss and embarrassment at Costa Rica.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 13
Morgan Brian gets a congratulatory hug after her converted penalty kick, which helped the U.S. women close out 2016 with a 5-0 rout of Romania at StubHub Center in Carson, California.
USMNT vs. Mexico, November 11
Mexico players celebrate Rafa Marquez's late winner, which delivered a 2-1 triumph for El Tri over the USA to open the CONCACAF Hexagonal. It ended years of U.S. domination over Mexico in Columbus.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 10
Crystal Dunn congratulates Christen Press on one of her three goals as the USA handled Romania with ease, winning 8-1 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 23
Carli Lloyd gets a hearty welcome after scoring on a long-range blast to kick-start the U.S. in a 5-1 rout of Switzerland in Minneapolis.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 19
A new-look U.S. women's team routed Switzerland 4-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with Samantha Mewis (3) at the center of the celebrations after scoring the final goal of four-goal second half.
USMNT vs. New Zealand, October 11
Julian Green is congratulated by captain Michael Bradley after scoring the opener, but the U.S. was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw vs. New Zealand in the last game before the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal kicks off.
USMNT vs. Cuba, October 7
Chris Wondolowski scored a goal and assisted on another, as the USA continued World Cup qualifying preparations by beating Cuba 2-0 in a historic friendly in Havana.
USWNT vs. Netherlands, September 18
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal that kicks off the scoring for the USA in a 3-1 win over the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
U.S. women's national team co-captain Carli Lloyd happily signs autographs after scoring a hat trick in a 9-0 romp over Thailand in Columbus, Ohio.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
Megan Rapinoe kneels for the national anthem ahead of the U.S. women's national team's match vs. Thailand, continuing her public protest in line with that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
USMNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, September 6
Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan celebrate during a 4-0 win, which cemented the USA's place atop its World Cup qualifying group and a berth in the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Hope Solo's USWNT contract terminated
Following the USWNT's Olympic loss to Sweden, Hope Solo lashed out at the opposition, calling them "cowards" and drawing the ire of U.S. Soccer. The incident pushed the federation over the edge, and it terminated the goalkeeper's contract while suspending her six months–meaning any chance at reinstatement won't be possible until February.
USWNT vs. Sweden, August 12
The long and stunned faces say it all, as the U.S. women try to comprehend a penalty-kick loss to Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals. The 4-3 PK defeat after a 1-1 draw marked the earliest ouster for the U.S. women in a major competition ever.
USWNT vs. Colombia, August 9
Hope Solo lets a Catalina Usme free kick slip through her hands and legs in a shocking 2-2 draw. The USA still won its Olympic group despite the slip-up.
USWNT vs. France, August 6
Carli Lloyd scores the only goal in a 1-0 win over a stout France side to punch the USA's ticket to the knockout stage at the Olympics.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, August 3
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal in the USA's 2-0 win over New Zealand in their opening match of group play at the Olympics. Alex Morgan doubled the USA's lead in the second half.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, July 22
Christen Press and Carli Lloyd celebrate an easy 4-0 win, which sent the U.S. on its way to Rio with an unbeaten record in 2016.
USWNT vs. South Africa, July 9
Hope Solo salutes the crowd after posting the 100th clean sheet of her career in a 1-0 win in Chicago. Crystal Dunn scored the lone goal.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 25
For a second time at Copa America, the USA falls to Colombia, with Carlos Bacca's goal the difference in a 1-0 result in the third-place match in Arizona.
USMNT vs. Argentina, June 21
Lionel Messi converts an incredible free kick to punctuate a dominant performance for Argentina against the USA in the Copa America semifinals.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, June 16
Goal scorers Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes share a celebratory hug with Matt Besler in the Copa America quarterfinals, where the Americans held on for a 2-1 win and a place in the semis.
USMNT vs. Paraguay, June 11
Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal in a 1-0 win over Paraguay, which secured the USA's place in the Copa America knockout stage.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, June 7
Bobby Wood caps a dominating first half for the USA in a must-win game vs. Costa Rica in Chicago at Copa America. Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi also scored.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 5
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn defends as the U.S. bounces back to shut out Japan 2-0 in a rain-shortened friendly in Cleveland.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 3
James Rodriguez beats Brad Guzan from the penalty spot in Colombia's 2-0 win over the USA to open Copa America Centenario.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 2
Lindsey Horan heads the USA in front to cap a comeback from two goals down, but the Americans conceded in extra time to 10-woman Japan, settling for a 3-3 draw.
USMNT vs. Bolivia, May 29
Christian Pulisic scores his first international goal in the USA's 4-0 win over Bolivia in a final tune-up for Copa America. Gyasi Zardes scored twice, and John Brooks added one of his own in the triumph.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, May 25
Darlington Nagbe is hugged by Christian Pulisic after his 90th-minute volley delivers a 1-0 victory for the USA in a pre-Copa America friendly.
USMNT vs. Puerto Rico, May 22
Tim Ream scores the opening goal in the USA's 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the first meeting between the two sides. Bobby Wood and Paul Arriola scored as well.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 10
Julie Johnston, left, is mobbed after one of her two goals in a 3-0 USA win at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 6
Allie Long, left scores twice, and five other players score as well in a 7-0 rout of Colombia in East Hartford, Connecticut.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Christian Pulisic, 17, makes his U.S. debut in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, becoming cap-tied to the USA. He was otherwise eligible for Croatia.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore celebrate during a thorough 4-0 World Cup qualifying win, putting the USA's campaign back on track after the setback in Guatemala.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 25
There was no way through for DeAndre Yedlin and the USA during a 2-0 loss in Guatemala in what was a stunning setback in the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The USWNT celebrates the inaugural SheBelieves Cup title after beating European powers England, France and Germany in succession.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The U.S. celebrates Alex Morgan's equalizer vs. Germany in the SheBelieves Cup in Boca Raton, Florida. Samantha Mewis's winner a few minutes later cemented the Americans' overall triumph in the competition.
USWNT vs. France, March 6
Alex Morgan scores the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over France in the second game of the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tennessee.
USWNT vs. England, March 3
Crystal Dunn is mobbed after her game-winning goal kicks off the SheBelieves Cup in a 1-0 triumph in Tampa Bay, Florida.
USWNT vs. Canada, February 21
Lindsey Horan celebrates her goal that helps the USA to a 2-0 win over Canada and a first-place finish in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, February 19
Alex Morgan celebrates one of her three goals that helped the U.S. clinch a berth in the 2016 Olympics after a 5-0 triumph in Houston.
USWNT vs. Puerto Rico, February 15
Crystal Dunn scores one of her five goals, tying a single-game U.S. record in a 10-0 rout to close group play in Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Mexico, February 13
The U.S. needed a penalty kick from Carli Lloyd to beat Mexico 1-0 in the second match of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, February 10
Alex Morgan scores the fastest goal in U.S. history, netting 12 seconds into the USWNT's Olympic qualifying campaign and sending the Americans on their way to a 5-0 win.
USMNT vs. Canada, February 5
Jozy Altidore heads in the winner to secure a 1-0 win over Canada at StubHub Center to cap the annual winter training camp.
USMNT vs. Iceland, January 31
Steve Birnbaum heads in a late winner in a 3-2 victory over Iceland in the opening match of the year.
USWNT vs. Ireland, January 23
17-year-old Mallory Pugh scores on her debut, helping cap a 5-0 win for the USA to open the year. Carli Lloyd led the way with a hat trick, and Alex Morgan scored as well in San Diego.
Klinsmann has his core, like every national team coach. But over the past year, the depth supporting that core has improved. Compare the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup roster with the team in contention to star the Hex. Jozy Altidore is healthy and in form. Sacha Kljestan, who earned his first international start in more than two years on Tuesday and had two goals and two assists across both qualifiers, may be the central playmaking foil to Michael Bradley that Klinsmann has been struggling to find. Christian Pulisic seems to be the real deal. Yes, it was St. Vincent and Trinidad, but the soon-to-be-18-year-old is also on Borussia Dortmund’s Champions League squad and seemed to have no trouble finding the ball or figuring out what to do with it in Jacksonville.
In Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Steve Birnbaum, Kellyn Acosta and others, there are players on the core’s edge who are more promising than their counterparts from earlier in Klinsmann’s tenure. Veterans like Graham Zusi, Omar Gonzalez, Alejandro Bedoya, Kyle Beckerman and perhaps even Dempsey–once he’s healthy–are being pushed. That’s exactly what Klinsmann has wanted. Meanwhile, young men in foreign leagues like Paul Arriola, Julian Green, Emerson Hyndman, Lynden Gooch and Matt Miazga whet the appetite.
During the Copa, Klinsmann sounded like a man who had turned the corner.
“Over time, we always said we want to move this program to another level. I think we did that over time,” he said. “Overall, I think our work speaks for itself. The coaching staff, what we did over the last five years is simply outstanding … What is satisfying is the players, they enjoy themselves. They bought into it already a long time ago, but over time it has to show obviously in results.”
That was before the blowout loss to Argentina in the semifinals. The U.S. didn’t look like it belonged on the same field as Messi and Co. and as Klinsmann said during that same monologue, “There will be always setbacks, always here and there some losses.”
The U.S. has found its form before under Klinsmann but hasn’t always handled it with much dexterity. He lauded his team’s advancement from a difficult group at the 2014 World Cup and the subsequent close call against Belgium, but then won only two games over the next seven months. Everyone was feeling good about themselves after the friendly wins over Netherlands and Germany in June 2015. Then came the Gold Cup disaster. And then there was the thud at this summer’s Copa América. It wasn’t that the U.S. lost to Argentina. It’s that it didn’t manage to take a single shot.
So here we are again, at a moment of momentum. It will be Klinsmann’s job to nurture it through the not-so-marquee October friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand, and the players’ responsibility to maintain the verve and confidence evident over the past week. (And again, while St. Vincent and Trinidad aren’t exactly world beaters, the U.S. was struggling last year just to pass the ball.) Good results against Mexico and Costa Rica and November would put the Americans firmly on the path to the 2018 World Cup. And there’s plenty falling into place.
While the U.S. appears to be on the up, Mexico may have lost a bit of its 2015 swagger. Injuries, manager Juan Carlos Osorio’s tinkering, that brutal 7-0 Copa loss to Chile and the scoreless draw against visiting Honduras on Tuesday night could conspire to plant a seed of doubt in El Tri ahead of another trip to Columbus. The showdown comes at a good time for the U.S. It falls during a brisk part of the calendar and at a point when the entire roster is in-season.
“When you talk about big games, for us there are none bigger than Mexico. When you talk about the next few months, the chance to play Mexico at home in November to start the Hex, that makes for a big night. I think that’s something we’d all look forward to,” Bradley told reporters this week. “November is also a good time for our group just in terms of the schedule, right? The MLS guys are fit and sharp at the end of their season and the European guys are well into their season and have gotten into a good rhythm of playing games. So I think in all ways it could set up well.”
The U.S. has earned six points out of the first two games of the Hex only once, and that came back in 2001. The opposition this time, especially the trip to Costa Rica, make a perfect start unlikely. But there was no easy schedule available—finishing second to Trinidad would have sealed a November visit to Honduras—so what matters is heading into the tough games in good form.
After a brutal 2015, the U.S. national team is feeling good about itself. There’s talent emerging or returning and evidence that Klinsmann has done more over the past 10 months to put his players in position to succeed on the day. Instead of feeling like months are needed to prepare for the Hex, the U.S. probably would like to kick it off next week. It’ll have to wait a couple months instead. But in Columbus, the Americans will have El Tri right where—and when—they want them.