Meet the new US, same as the old US as it tries to stay on the road to Rio
European Football Headlines
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - "It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
Winston Churchill was of course describing Russia circa 1939 with his famous quote, but England's former Prime Minister could have also been talking about the current iteration of the United States national soccer team, which will try to navigate a bumpy stretch on its road to Rio with a patchwork of playing styles and personnel.
Despite being in a slightly precarious position heading into the final pair of third-round qualifiers in the CONCACAF region this week - part of a three-way tie with Guatemala and Jamaica, with only the top two teams advancing - the United States has grown into a regional power. It is a counterweight to Mexico for regional supremacy as the two squads have finished first and second together in World Cup qualifying three of the last four cycles.
The Yanks' streak of reaching six consecutive World Cups is exceeded only by perennial staples Brazil (19), Germany (15), Italy (13), Argentina (10), Spain (9) and South Korea (7). Those six countries, however, have something the U.S. lacks during those streaks - at least one semifinal appearance in soccer's most prestigious tournament.
Every time talk emerges of the United States turning the proverbial corner (see, 2002 quarterfinal loss in which it outplayed Germany; or, 2010 extra-time loss to Ghana in the round of 16 after finishing atop a group with England), its last step is often a misstep.
A misstep this time, however, may have potentially damaging long-term implications.
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati hired Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2011 Gold Cup final in which the U.S. squandered an early 2-0 lead before losing to Mexico. Yet for all of Klinsmann's talk of instilling an up-tempo and attacking style, his best results have come playing a style that is... nearly identical to predecessor Bob Bradley in terms of pragmatism and counterattacking.
Such are the limits of the United States player pool as currently constructed.
Every squad has churn, both as a whole and within itself. In 2010, the U.S. had its most fluid offense with Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan as the focal points, while Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley were key cogs in support. In the 2012 calendar year, the Yanks sport an impressive 7-2-2 mark - including road victories in friendlies at Italy and at Mexico where they absorbed pressure and found a goal on the counter.
However, this is also a team that was shredded in a 4-1 thrashing by Brazil's Olympic - and eventual World Cup - squad at home in May and overrun frequently in a 2-1 qualifying loss at Jamaica last month. The latter defeat was more concerning - it exposed a lack of depth as Klinsmann let Kyle Beckerman founder all over Kingston.
Remember, this is Klinsmann's first qualification process. He guided Germany to a third-place finish in 2006 as World Cup host, and his club tenure at Bayern Munich - where he lasted less than one season - was spotty at best.
There is still an on-the-job learning curve, no matter how much time Klinsmann spent gleaning the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. squad while living in California and flirting with Gulati about taking the job before finally accepting.
All this comes to a head starting Friday, when the U.S. plays at Antigua and Barbuda before hosting Guatemala on Tuesday in a bid to claim a spot in the final-round hexagonal. Klinsmann upped the ante Monday with the startling omission of Altidore from his 22-man roster and admitted he's been disappointed in the 22-year-old with his play and his practice habits since early this summer.
It seems a dangerous time for Klinsmann to pick a fight - the U.S. likely needs at least four points to advance out of this group, which means it has to score goals. And Altidore has been in blistering form in Holland - he's tied atop the Eredivisie with eight goals for AZ Alkmaar.
Klinsmann's decision took on added weight Tuesday when Donovan, who missed the two qualifiers versus Jamaica last month due to injury, would not play due to a knee injury. The all-time leading U.S. scorer with 49 goals, Donovan's absence puts more pressure on Dempsey, who has played well for his country despite his contentious move from Fulham to Tottenham in the Premier League.
Dempsey will have some help from Bradley, who also missed the previous two matches with an injury.
There have been points the Yanks have played the attractive, attacking style Klinsmann longs for, the play elite teams put together for consecutive matches. In the Yanks' case, those moments have came and went in a single match - most recently the first 45 minutes of their 1-0 victory over Jamaica last month - and even then, no goals came from that dominant spell.
And therein lies the rub. Goals matter this week. Points matter this week. Style points do not. In the unlikely event the U.S. fails to advance, it is very likely both Klinsmann and Gulati will be out of their respective jobs.
By the final whistle Tuesday night in Kansas City, the U.S. will have made its checkpoint on the road to Rio and afforded more time to tune itself up or be a restoration project that will take place over six agonizing years.
Updated October 11, 2012