Every team in the World Cup has a unique story and set of circumstances that led them to the most important tournament in soccer. The United States’ story is littered with disappointment, change and an eye toward the future. Jurgen Klinsmann had a clear plan when he was appointed in 2011, and now on the eve of the World Cup, a look back at the last four years shows just how much plans change.
The 2010 World Cup will be remembered in America for the exciting last minute strike by Landon Donovan against Algeria that sent the team into the knockout stage. Their Round of 16 match-up saw the team tied with Ghana going into extra time. But our African archrival eliminated the United States from their second straight World Cup.
Despite the disappointing loss, the US had a solid showing in the South Africa, winning their group for the first time since finishing third in the inaugural 1930 World Cup. The USMNT’s strong showing in South Africa led to high expectations, not only from fansm but from within the United States Soccer Federation. The team was expected to build upon their success over the next four years in preparation for Brazil. And despite some hesitation on both the Federation and the manager's side in the months after the World Cup, the path to Brazil was to be led by manager Bob Bradley, who was awarded a contract extension that would see him coach through 2014.
The Yanks began 2011 with draws against the likes of Argentina and Chile, only to be defeated in their next two friendlies. Despite a handful of disappointing results, hopes were again high leading into the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Playing amongst the likes of Canada, Guadeloupe and Panama, the United States was expected to place in the top two of their group, which they did. The team played well enough to reach the final against bitter rival Mexico, but disappointment and failure to meet higher expectations would be the calling card for the USMNT in 2011 and it started there. Mexico beat the Americans, 4-2, and Bob Bradley, the man who had led the team to the knockout stage a year before, would be replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann.
Klinsmann was known as a legendary player and managing Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup, a tenure that also saw him credited with revamping the German soccer program. It was expected that Klinsmann would do the same for the United States, where he would build a better youth system, increase playing time for players with dual citizenship and change the culture of the American soccer program. But despite Klinsmann’s pedigree, the national squad struggled in their seven friendlies under his stewardship, winning only two of the contests.
Change is a tough thing to bring about, and overhauling a national soccer program is even more difficult. Klinsmann began to bring about that change by giving younger players more time on the pitch. Players like Brek Shea and Graham Zusi were now playing alongside veterans Herculez Gomez and Carlos Bocanegra. It was clear that Klinsmann still needed to lean on the squads veterans if they were to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, but it was clear that the younger players on the team would be the key to qualification and success in Brazil.
That August, the United States would travel to the daunting Estadio Azteca for a friendly against rival Mexico. The friendly would turn out to be one of the most important results is Unites States history and proof that Klinsmann had begun to create a positive change in the national soccer culture. Mexico had a record of 23-0-1 against their archrivals in the choking heat, humidity and altitude of their 100,000 seat fortress and everyone expected that to be 24-0-1 by the end of the day. The U.S., however, had other plans, playing a nearly flawless game and tallying an 80thminute goal to secure their first win at the Azteca. A winless streak that had dated back to 1937 was now over, giving the United States a boost heading in to their stretch run of the third round of World Cup qualifiers.
The team would go on to win three of their four qualifiers, putting them at the top of their group and advancing to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. With World Cup qualification that much closer, and many of Klinsmann’s changes beginning to take hold, everything was looking up at the end of the year.
A year out from the World Cup, 2013 would prove be a defining year for the USMNT, one that showed Klinsmann’s philosophy was beginning to take hold. The team still had to compete in the final round of World Cup qualifying and any fears that they were falling apart or couldn't compete dissipated in March when they beat Costa Rica in a blizzard then secured a draw at the Azteca. No opponent, weather or venue could derail a team whose confidence was as high as it had ever been.
The newfound confidence became obvious when the team went on an absolute tear that summer, amassing a 12-game winning streak. That streak began with a win against a solid, albeit weakened German squad. An undefeated run in the Gold Cup gave further proof that Klinsmann’s squad believed they could beat any team. Jozy Altidore’s confidence was also at a new high, the striker went on to score in his next five games, totaling seven goals.
The USMNT was firing on all cylinders going into a World Cup year. But with these excellent results comes high expectations. These were the same high expectations that Bradley’s squad had failed to live up to after the 2010 World Cup. Klinsmann, however, seemed unfazed insisting that the team still had a long way to go before they could reach World Cup glory.
The World Cup draw saw the United States placed in the "Group of Death" alongside Germany, Portugal and old foe Ghana, but the squad seemed undeterred by the challenge that awaited them. Even so, the squad’s confidence and form dipped to begin the year with disappointing results against Mexico and Ukraine, leaving doubts in the minds of some that the United States would have any success at the World Cup.
When the 30-man preliminary roster was released, Klinsmann’s dedication to youth became clear. Previous World Cup veterans like Gomez and Oguchi Onyewu were left off the roster in favor of new comers like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and DeAndre Yedlin. Even more surprising was the inclusion of 18-year-old Julian Green, who had recently been lured away from Germany and played only one international fixture prior to the roster being announced. The 23-man roster further highlighted Klinsmann's youth movement as veterans like Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and all-time goal scorer Landon Donovan would be left at home.
Now the U.S. heads to Brazil. They are still in a fearsome group, and have plenty of youth, so betting on the Americans getting out may not be the smartest wager, but if the last four years have taught us anything it's that plans so often go for naught -- and that can be good as often as it can be bad.