USMNT rallies after rough 2013 start

It’s tough ascribing meaning to something that plainly doesn’t have very much of it. And since we know our readers are too smart to be deceived on matters such as these anyway, we won’t even try. So there, that’s about as well as we can couch our look-ahead to the USA’s final game of 2013, Tuesday’s away friendly against Austria, a fairly mirthless ending to what was otherwise a barnburner of a year.

The 2013 incarnation of the United States men’s national team careened from all-out crisis to all-time record winning streak. In February and March, when the hexagonal round opener was ignominiously lost 1-2 in Honduras and reporter Brian Straus lifted the lid on a crisis in confidence in head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his novel methods among a good few members of the team, the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign seemed in deep trouble.

But by the end of the summer, a spot in Brazil was all but sewn up and the Gold Cup won, thanks to a dozen games won consecutively and convincingly. A fourth consecutive dos-a-cero qualifying win over Mexico in Columbus put a bow on the whole thing. Now, no other year in American men’s soccer history has yielded so many wins – 16 – and the narrative on Klinsmann has shifted from serious questioning of his coaching chops to a nervousness that he might not return when his contract is up after the World Cup.

For all that excitement, however, the year comes to a subdued end. After a drowsy 0-0 draw with Scotland last Friday, the Americans take on a fairly uninspiring opponent in Austria. Das Team – their rather unimaginative nickname, according to their Wikipedia page – has reached one European championship in its existence, when they were co-hosts in 2008, hasn’t made it to a World Cup since 1998 and last made it past the second round of one in 1954. David Alaba and Marko Arnautovic are promising young players, and that concludes the list of Austrians worth watching.

The Americans will once again turn up with a diluted squad. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are out with niggling injuries. Fellow stalwarts Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones aren’t at 100 percent – the former recently returning from injury and losing his starting job with AS Roma; the latter lumbered with a bad meniscus. Which brings about yet more questions regarding continuity.

If you accept that the core of the team consists of Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Jones, striker Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard in goal, it should concern you that they have never once all started in the same game since Klinsmann took over in July 2011. They have, in fact, only shared the field for 41 cumulative minutes, and that was back in a threesome of games in June 2012, when Altidore was used as a late substitute.

There’s nothing to be done about that. Only one A-team friendly date remains between the Austria game and the time the pre-World Cup camp convenes sometime in late May – a mere 48-hour international window framing March 5 – leaving precious little opportunity for the first string to get reacquainted.

That also means the window of opportunity for bubble players to make an impression, or fringe starters to improve their standing is quickly dwindling. Recently-converted Icelandic forward Aron Johannsson, who could well strong-arm his way into a starting job, was one of the few Americans to leave any sort of impression against the Scots. The other was Brek Shea, whose scintillating talent has been buried on the Stoke City bench – or the stands, more like – but remains a possible game-changer for the U.S. He could make a late run at a roster spot. So could Eric Lichaj, who was finally given a shot at the trouble right back spot. Sacha Kljestan and Mix Diskerud are in a dog fight over the backup roles in central midfield. Their time is now.

Alright then, one last attempt to shove some extra relevance down the throat of the largely irrelevant: the predictive power of the end-of-year friendlies for the following year.

Alas, going back through the history of the U.S.’s November games, dating back to 2008, drawing any sort of conclusions from how those results foretell performance in the next year is a stretch. But since we went to the trouble of compiling them, here are the numbers anyway. In eight November contests – the Americans played two friendlies in 2010 and 2012, as they will this year, and one game every other year – the USA went 4-3-1 (W-L-T).

In the years after the U.S. won its November friendly (they claimed victories in ’07, ’08 and ’10) they had .509 winning percentage. In 2010, the Yanks lost both their November games and in 2011 posted a .357 winning percentage. When they split their end-of-year games in 2011, a .643 winning percentage ensued in 2012. Last year, a hard-won tie with Russia begat this year’s best-ever 16-3-3 season, for a .727 winning percentage.

So there, if you insist on squeezing meaning out of the positively meaningless – given the tiny sample size and all – you could argue that the Americans would be best off tying their second November friendly as well. Wins in three-quarters of their games would be practically guaranteed* for 2014. In a World Cup year!

* Not guaranteed.