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The Once Maligned United States Player Pool Is Shining

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Has Jurgen Klinsmann changed the United States' style of play? Is the U.S. a better team today than they were when he took over? Will the Americans be able to make a deep run at the 2014 World Cup?

Those questions remain unanswered.

The U.S. is just 18 matches into Klinsmann's reign and remain a work in progress. When he made his bold promises and outlined his sweeping changes 13 months ago, everybody knew that the results would not come overnight.

Klinsmann's overhaul was always going to be a difficult process, but it wasn't the big ideas and turnover that presented the German with his biggest hurdle -- it was his players.

The American player pool looked woefully thin. Bob Bradley was fired after his most tactically ambitious match in the Gold Cup final, when he got everything right, but it didn't matter. Mexico's most talented generation in decades exploited the holes all over the U.S. team and Klinsmann took over that same American team, holes and all.

But more than a year later, those holes have been filled and the U.S. team is loaded with better players than anyone could have possibly imagined Klinsmann would have at his disposal on the day he took over.

On Tuesday night, in front of a frenzied red, white and blue clad crowd, the U.S. trotted out a team that nobody could have predicted last August. Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley were missing through injury, but it wasn't the absences that stood out, it was those who played. The new additions to the team showed the growth of the same player pool whose lack of depth could have doomed Klinsmann 13 months ago.

Three starters had never played an international match on the day that Klinsmann took over. Another had just one measly cap to his name as recently as this January. The goalscorer in Tuesday night's game had only started two international matches in his career before May and he was substituted off at halftime in both.

Danny Williams, Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron and Herculez Gomez made up half of the American outfield players in Columbus, Ohio, where they helped rescue what was almost a disastrous qualifying campaign that could have seen the United States eliminated from the 2014 World Cup ... in 2012.

The U.S. found themselves on the verge of being knocked out because of a loss to Jamaica on Friday, where their midfield was overrun and they were devoid of width. But on Tuesday, Williams and Zusi -- one of whom didn't have a U.S. passport until last October and another who made his international debut in January -- came into the team and it was those two who helped fix those problems.

Williams drove the play through the middle, using smart movement and quick passes to open up the Jamaican defense. Meanwhile, Zusi's play on the right, especially when combining with Steve Cherundolo, gave the Americans the kind of width that has been so elusive under Klinsmann.

Like Williams, Johnson wasn't even eligible to play for the U.S. last August. He wasn't a fullback then either, instead playing in the midfield for Hoffenheim, but on Tuesday he was at left back for the Americans, putting in another marvelous performance. It was just the latest in a string of sparkling efforts by Johnson, who has solved the U.S. riddle at left back, a position that had been a revolving door of awful, inadequate and ghastly for more than a decade.

Right there on the back line with Johnson was the Americans' best center back, Cameron. The man who hasn't been able to find a consistent position his entire career -- and still can't now as he shuttles between defense for the national team and midfield for Stoke City -- was terrific once again.

After a Man of the Match-deserving showing in the Americans' first ever win in Mexico last month, Cameron backed it up with a great match in Kingston and then matched that performance again in Columbus. He's now firmly establishing himself as the future of the U.S. central defense and left observers to wonder why it took until January for him to get his second cap, two years after his first.

And then there is Gomez, Tuesday's effervescent goal scorer who struggled to get much of a look at the international level no matter how many goals he scored for his club. Often considered limited, Gomez was frozen out of the U.S. squad when Klinsmann took over and even referred to himself as a "former US men's national team striker" last fall. But that once-former player is now the Americans' go-to striker. He started his seventh consecutive match for the U.S. on Tuesday and fittingly delivered the goal that may have rescued Klinsmann's campaign.

Klinsmann's job is far from done and nobody is passing final judgement on his tenure yet, but that might not have been the case had the U.S. lost to Jamaica on Tuesday night. The U.S. men would have been on the verge of crashing out of the World Cup, and what was supposed to be a four-year revolution could have ended two years early with the program at a low it has not seen for more than 20 years.

With everything on the line, from the Americans' World Cup dreams to Klinsmann's great change, a whole new crop of players made up nearly half of the U.S. team. The injured players were forgotten for one night, the holes that were supposed to doom the Americans were gone, and Klinsmann's dream for the U.S. was saved by what was supposed to be his biggest obstacle -- his players.