Weird. That’s the best description of the year the United States men’s national team had in 2013. The strange and twisted saga of this team, afflicted with a diagnosable schizophrenia, careened from crisis to recovery to soaring successes — before ending in deflating disappointment.
For a good long while it promised to become a foul year. The Americans stumbled into 2013 on the back of a fraught third phase in World Cup qualifying. Making it out of a group comprised of Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda, humble opponents all, had been needlessly arduous. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s promised stylistic revolution — eschewing the old countering mentality for a more assertive one — had not come off, leaving the team a muddled-up mess. And were it not for a 1-0 win over the Reggae Boyz in Columbus, the United States could have faced early elimination.
In Honduras, the Yanks kicked off 2013 by bathing themselves in yet more ignominy. In spite of going ahead against the Catrachos in their hexagonal round opener, they coughed up two unanswered goals in San Pedro Sula’s stifling conditions. The scoreline belied the performance, which was far worse than the 2-1 loss suggested. Insipid, slow and winded, the USA looked as bad as it had in several years.
Then, things got worse. A meticulously reported and sourced Sporting News story by Brian Straus cited a slew of active national teamers anonymously griping about Klinsmann’s methods. Most damningly, he was called “scatterbrained.” To this day, no player has copped to being one of the sources, nor has Klinsmann acknowledged any validity to the laundry lists of complaints. Yet no one thinks the report was incorrect.
At that stage in early March, the Klinsmann era looked as it would end in either mutiny — or worse, possibly the Americans’ first failure to reach the World Cup since 1986. But then the team turned a corner, finally rediscovering those old staples of American soccer that had served them so well in the past: grit, physicality and moxie. The possession and high pressure were perfectly acceptable aspirations. Mental robustness was before all else.
Against Costa Rica, a game played in a blizzard in Denver, the USA gutted out a gritty 1-0 win. The match was preposterous: it should never have been allowed to continue. Yet, it was a turning point. Down in Mexico City, the USA’s first-ever there in a friendly six months prior served the team well. Undaunted by the Estadio Azteca cauldron, the Americans kept their cool and their shape as Mexico fruitlessly sought a goal and its elusive form. It found neither, and the USA claimed just its second qualifying point in Mexico from the 0-0 draw.
Heading into the summer, the Americans’ qualifying campaign was back on the rails and the mood noticeably lighter in camp. In the first of the dozen games they would play over just two months, the USA was outclassed by Belgium in a friendly in Cleveland on May 29. But the next friendly, against Germany, turned out to be another tipping point. The game marked the United States Soccer Federation’s 100th anniversary, and the celebration proved worthy. A 4-1 lead wasn’t diluted to a 4-3 final against a German B+ team until the American focus was compromised late on.
In Kingston on June 7, in its fourth World Cup qualifier, the US gave up their lead on an 89th-minute Jermaine Beckford goal, only to see emergency defender Brad Evans put them back ahead in injury time to secure the first qualifying win in Jamaica. That proved to be the jumping-off point for a glorious summer.
The Americans reeled off ten more games, setting a new winning streak record at twelve. During that stretch, the USA picked up six more qualifying points at home against Panama and Honduras and glided to the CONCACAF Gold Cup trophy with their B-team. Landon Donovan marked his return to the national team — playing through an indentured servitude of sorts with the second string — with a series of transcendent performances, causing Klinsmann to forgive him for taking a sabbatical for the first four months of the year. And through it all, that stylistic dominance the German coach had lusted after finally materialized, delivering the finest American performances since the run to the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup.
In Sarajevo on Aug. 14, the Yanks even overcame a two-goal deficit to Bosnia & Herzegovina in a 4-3 win. In that game, striker Jozy Altidore scored his sixth goal in four A-team games after failing to score in more than a year and a half, underscoring his immense progress at club level.
The Americans had a chance to clinch their place at the World Cup in Costa Rica on Sept. 6. But in the pregame warm-up, midfield metronome Michael Bradley twisted an ankle. Visibly rattled by the late scratch of its orchestrator and emotional leader, the USA never got into its rhythm and went down 3-1 on the rain-soaked San Jose sod.
That set up about as poetic a showdown with archrivals Mexico as US fans could have hoped for. Now mired in a deep crisis, El Tri needed a win to relieve some pressure. The Americans could clinch in Columbus, Ohio, their spiritual home, where they had beaten Mexico 2-0 in the three prior qualifiers. The US went up one, then two, and then earned a penalty. Clint Dempsey missed – some gather on purpose. 2-0. Dos a cero, just as the fans had been singing for days. A seventh consecutive World Cup berth had been secured.
Friendlies in Scotland and Austria were to bookend a year that had already secured a record-setting 16 wins. With an injury-stricken team, however, an unwatchable 0-0 tie with Scotland and a mirthless 1-0 loss to Austria ate at all the goodwill the Americans had built up throughout the year.
Those flat performances raised questions for 2014, the World Cup year, when just one A-team friendly date in March precedes the pre-World Cup camp in late May. For America showed two different faces, two distinct personalities in 2013, leading one to wonder which they will don in Brazil next summer.