Last year was a dismal time to be a USMNT supporter. Not only did Jurgen Klinsmann's side fail to make it to the Gold Cup final for the first time since the internet was invented, but they also lost to their most hated rivals in a one-off playoff match on home soil.
Then you had the U-23 team getting dominated in the semifinals of what should have been an easy to conquer CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, relegating them to a home-and-away playoff this year for their Olympic lives.
Needless to say, 2015 was a rotten year and one that left many fans with a sour taste in their mouths.
This year offers the chance for redemption. The schedule is packed full of important fixtures for Jurgen and the USMNT to right the ship and win back over the people who support the team and were let down by the embarrassment that was 2015.
The next two weeks will go a long ways in determining what type of year it will be for the men's program. Four high intensity matches between two age groups will set the tone for the year to come.
The U-23's reach for Rio de Janeiro
It all begins with the U-23's quest to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics. If they find a way prevail in their home-and-away playoff against Colombia they clinch a berth into a high profile, high intensity tournament that will give every player lucky enough to earn a roster spot valuable experience that will help them throughout their career.
The 2008 team that went to Beijing and competed included these names who have turned out to be great professionals and most important USMNT performers in some aspect: Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Charlie Davies, Maurice Edu, Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber, Brad Guzan, Stuart Holden, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Parkhurst, and Dax McCarty
All of those players went to the Olympics and it helped them in the long run. Compare that to the next cycle of players that failed to qualify in 2012 and how those player's careers have gone and their contributions to the USMNT so far (full roster here). The only player on that qualifying roster to become a senior team regular is Mix Diskerud. The others have struggled in their professional careers and have had little to no impact with the USMNT.
That's not to say there is a direct correlation between playing in the Olympics and professional success, but there's no proof to say that it doesn't at least help. Players benefit from playing in big matches. Qualifying for this tournament would offer some of the current top prospects a huge chance to show off their skills in front of the world and maybe help them improve their club standing, thus helping the national team in the future.
It's a huge opportunity for Andi Herzog's side against Colombia to put a mediocre four-year cycle in their rear view mirror and set themselves up for a very exciting summer, instead of falling by the wayside and being forgotten about for the next few years. Most of the players on this U-23 team aren't ready for the senior level quite yet. If they don't make it to the Olympics, they'll have no other chance to prove to Klinsmann that they can make it at the international level.
USMNT rebuilding confidence
The senior team takes on Guatemala in two very important World Cup qualifiers that could go one of three ways. They could make it very easy on themselves and win both matches and clinch a birth into next year's final CONCACAF World Cup qualifying stage. Splitting the points with a them would leave it up to the final two match days, while losing both would a complete nightmare. Most expect the U.S. to walk through this group in some way and make it to the Hex, but expectations are something this team haven't been meeting in the last few years.
The Gold Cup debacle will live in infamy for as long as Klinsmann is still the USMNT boss. Failing to dominate in these qualifiers and make it to the Hex easily will only increase the scrutiny and pressure surrounding him. Starting the year off right with two victories over Guatemala and qualification to the Hex would be just what the doctor ordered for this team. Especially with the Copa America Centenario just a few months away. Coming into that tournament with loads of confidence is the only way the U.S. will have a chance of progressing far. If they enter it flat and dejected, they'll be sitting ducks waiting to get picked off by the talented group they were drawn into.
Clinching qualification into the Hex early would also have its rewards in the future. If the last two match days against T&T and Vinny Heat aren't consequential, Klinsmann will have the opportunity to call up some of his best prospects and give them some valuable experience. Not to mention it'll be the perfect opportunity to cap-tie some of the promising dual-nationals such as Christian Pulisic and Cameron Carter-Vickers. That's way down the road, but it's only possible if the U.S. gets the job done in these next two matches.
These next two weeks are unprecedented for the men's program. Two teams playing two matches on the exact same days. They both have the opportunity to set themselves up for a year that will redeem all of their recent struggles. High pressure situations is what makes soccer so great. The pressure will be on come Friday night. Hopefully both teams respond with positive results for the sake of the entire men's program.