The United States men's national soccer team is about to head into three crucial World Cup qualifying matches following two warm-up friendlies last week. They're good enough to win all of them and it's unlikely that any of them end in absolute disaster, but Jürgen Klinsmann's squad still has a lot of work to do before it books its flight to Brazil.
As usual, panic over the USMNT fanbase has subsided following a bad result. Wednesday's 4-1 loss to Belgium had many wondering why Klinsmann scheduled such tough opponents this summer and whether or not the team was ready for World Cup qualifying. That was followed up by a 4-3 win over a German B team that featured 2-0 and 4-1 leads for the U.S. before everyone tuned out late.
Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley were at their best on Sunday, and suddenly all was well in U.S. soccer land again. Fans cried out for Landon Donovan and derided Klinsmann's decision to exclude him from the squad on Wednesday, but no one mentioned his name on Sunday.
The two friendly performances were two very extreme ones from the United States, which isn't surprising. Bradley was rested against Belgium and, while Sacha Kljestan didn't do anything wrong in that game, the gulf in quality between the two was obvious when Bradley took the pitch against Germany. Bradley's presence also seemed to instill confidence in Jermaine Jones, who sprayed long diagonal passes to his teammates after playing a conservative game on Wednesday. Altidore was a statue against Belgium, but Klinsmann noted after the game that he was dealing with an illness. Seemingly healthy on Sunday, Altidore's movement off the ball opened up space for his teammates. He scored one goal, assisted another, and had a positive contribution to the other two -- even the hilarious Marć-Andre ter Stegen own goal.
These games weren't an obvious indicator of what's to come in World Cup qualifying. The United States will not face a team as good as Belgium in June, but every team they face will be better jelled and more organized than the random contingent of players that Joachim Löw had to work with in the absence of his stars from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid.
They also didn't tell anyone much about the U.S. that wasn't already common knowledge. Everyone knew that the U.S. is better with Bradley than without him. It's not news that the attack stalls when Altidore stands still, but looks dangerous when he's making runs off the ball. Even if he hasn't been in top form for a long time, everyone knows that Dempsey can score from anywhere at anytime. When those three players are fit and at their best, the U.S. looks good going forward.
But there's also the case of the problems that haven't been fixed. Tim Howard did nothing to dispel claims that he's fallen off and that Brad Guzan should be given a shot in goal for the United States. Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have made occasional catastrophic errors in MLS this season and looked more like young defenders in need of a lot more experience than the pair that was nearly flawless in a 0-0 draw against Mexico back in March. Klinsmann continues to experiment with his fullbacks and was apparently so dissatisfied with the real fullbacks on his roster that he opted to give DaMarcus Beasley another chance at left back while giving central midfielder Brad Evans a surprise run at right back.
As Ryan Rosenblatt wrote at Stars and Stripes FC on Sunday, Evans was Klinsmann's last resort, with none of four other options looking viable at right back. Steve Cherundolo asked for a rest this summer, Timothy Chandler is injured, Geoff Cameron looks out of place at right back playing for anyone but Stoke City, and Michael Parkhurst hasn't been playing regularly. While Evans was caught terribly out of position on Germany's third goal, he looked competent otherwise, and probably isn't going to be the reason the United States wins or loses any of their next three World Cup qualifiers. The same can probably be said for Beasley, who has been part of some good results despite looking woefully out of place as a defender.
The back line and Howard are probably going to make mistakes that lead to goals that good teams don't concede over the next three games. They'll turn in at least one gem of a game as a collective and probably at least one total stinker. Dempsey and Altidore are probably going to play better than they did against Belgium, but not quite as good as they did against Germany. Similar things can be said for Bradley, who, despite his consistent play for the USMNT, can't exactly be expected to turn in near-perfect gems every time out. They can score against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, but don't expect them to score four goals in any of those games.
Over the next two weeks, the United States is probably going to capture between five and seven points from their three games and head into the fall in one of the three automatic qualifying positions in the Hexagonal qualifying tournament. They'll probably lose in Costa Rica in September and they'll probably struggle at home against Mexico, but they'll be in a top-three spot and in control of their own destiny as they head to Panama.
The loss to Belgium was not a disastrous indicator of terrible things to come and the win over Germany was not an indication that the United States can play with the big boys. The USMNT are neither at this point. Klinsmann's team is a solid one that should finish top-three in CONCACAF comfortably, but they are not yet in a place where they can realistically compete with the best teams in the world. If the World Cup started tomorrow, assuming they didn't end up with an uncharacteristically easy draw, the United States would probably get knocked out in the group stage.
Klinsmann's USMNT is a decent team on the right track toward becoming a good team, but there's a lot to be done before it starts playing competitive games against teams outside of CONCACAF. The U.S. looks like they'll have little to worry about among their front six players when the World Cup rolls around, but Klinsmann needs to figure out what to do with the five behind them.
The experience and talent that the United States' best players have will carry them to a World Cup through Klinsmann's tinkering. He doesn't have to solve every defensive issue right away, but he does have to do it in a year. In international football terms, that's not a very long time at all.