USMNT 2013 Report Card
By Victor Jacobo
From World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup and a few marquee friendlies, 2013 was a full-throttle effort on the part of the U.S. Men’s National Team. As the Stars and Stripes look forward towards Brazil in 2014, I take a look back at their 2013 performance on the pitch.
Jurgen Klinsmann was determined to build off of a successful 2012 campaign. In 2013, the USMNT never lost two games in a row, showing signs of learning from their mistakes and making improvements their next time out on the field. Klinsmann’s calm demeanor and fiery enthusiasm plays a major role on the field but, more importantly, in the locker room.
Confidence in his squad grew especially throughout World Cup qualifying. However, pressure grew on his shoulders as the right combination of 11 players was never solidified. The expectation heading into 2014 is that Klinsmann’s game of musical chairs with his lineup has ended and can count on a solid core of 11 starters. Time is running out for Klinsmann to cement the defense and midfield combination that can produce results in Brazil.
Perhaps the area of most concern entering 2014 is the defensive third. Scheduled to go up against some of the greatest scoring forces on the planet when they face the full force of the German attack and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
On American soil, the defense is able to hold up and play with confidence as expected. In hostile environments, however, they prove to be shaky. On the one hand, the back four are able to keep competitions close like the scoreless draw against Mexico in the Azteca. On other occasions, they fall to pressure and allow attacks like Costa Rica to have their way. Klinsmann has noted this and made his adjustments.
One of the more notable adjustments in the back is the placement of veteran Demarcus Beasley at leftback. He is in the twilight of his career but the once speedy midfielder has proved to be a valuable asset in the back. While the back four was consistently being switched, it looks like Klinsmann may tap the shoulders of Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Beasley.
Between the posts, Tim Howard looks to make the most of what may be his last World Cup at the seasoned age of 34. Howard was solid in 2013, rarely making mistakes and being an essential voice in the back.
The midfield CAN be great but throughout 2013 could not bring about consistency. It is safe to say that Michael Bradley (who is arguably one the more valuable players on the squad), Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will hold the line well in Brazil to create plays up front and keep their star-studded opponents in check.
It’s the fourth spot and the potential men coming off the bench that worry many supporters. Jermaine Jones is the safest bet but Graham Zusi, Brek Shea and Kyle Beckerman need to be ready to step up on the biggest stage if needed.
Jozy Altidore has long have had to answer his critics. After a disappointing 2010 World Cup, it seemed that he was not the attacking force the Americans could count on. In 2013, Jozy scored eight goals with four of them coming in qualifying matches.
If Altidore can stay in form and continue to produce results in Brazil, that will allow Dempsey and someone like Eddie Johnson time and space to create plays of their own. Personally, Altidore surprised me time and time again in 2013.
The Yanks took care of business when it mattered in 2013. When Jamaica tied the game in the 89th minute in Kingston, the air left the pub where I was watching the game. That June night I thought the USMNT were in for a difficult finish in qualifying. But, to the surprise of many that night, an unlikely hero emerged.
Brad Evans was able to put the ball into the back of the net in the 92nd minute to put the Americans ahead. The pub erupted in overwhelming joy. For me, that night was a turning point for Klinsmann and his boys. They found that deep-rooted American fight in them that we have all come to know and love (ex. Donovan's goal vs. Algeria). It is that kind of effort that will be necessary to make it out of the Group of Death.
We expect plays from Donovan and Dempsey, but the Red, White and Blue need a complete team effort where unlikely heroes step up and make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. The losses against Honduras, Belgium (a potential second-round matchup in Brazil) and Costa Rica are my indicators of a team not quite ready to take it to the next level.
But moments like that June night in Jamaica should give Klinsmann confidence that his team can dig deep and make things happen when it counts. This team has heavy expectations heading into Brazil and they are looking to deliver.