A week can change everything, especially in the high-stakes atmosphere of World Cup qualifying. After the United States national team secured a valuable point Tuesday night with a scoreless draw in Mexico City, that fact was illustrated in the talking points surrounding the team.
A week ago, coach Jurgen Klinsmann was in over his head and negativity and pessimism blighted the squad. By Wednesday morning, he was a genius and optimism abounded.
A week ago, the American defense was filled with untested, inexperienced backups who hadn't ever played together in World Cup qualifying. By Wednesday morning, they were rising stars responsible for two clean sheets in as many matches, including one in the most demanding of settings.
Speaking of the defense, a funny thing happened Tuesday night. It wasn't January camp in California, but for 90 minutes, it almost seemed that way.
With Clarence Goodson, who started against Costa Rica on Friday, unavailable against Mexico, Klinsmann drafted Matt Besler into central defense alongside Omar Gonzalez. In this pairing, Gonzalez's handful of career caps counted as experience.
Besler, a 26-year-old Sporting Kansas City defender, was making just his second international appearance—and first in World Cup qualifying—in the cauldron-like atmosphere of the Azteca Stadium. Besler and Gonzalez performed well, keeping Mexico's dangerous attack scoreless.
Curiously, to outsiders at least, Klinsmann wasn't surprised.
"We have to give credit a little bit to our January camp. It gave us the chance to have Omar and Matt work every day side by side," Klinsmann said (via Sports Illustrated). "There was already a great understanding because they trained for a month together. So we were very calm."
Gonzalez, a 6'5" L.A. Galaxy defender, played especially well, cutting out Mexican attacks across the back line. On the right, Geoff Cameron kept Andres Guardado relatively quiet, while DaMarcus Beasley again filled in admirably on the left, though he was beaten on occasion.
They weren't the only solid performers. Midfielder Michael Bradley was another, marauding up and down the pitch in a box-to-box role. With each match, he looks more like a captain, but if his contribution was expected, that of the defense was not.
Together with Brad Guzan, who continues to fill in for injured No. 1 keeper Tim Howard, this untested unit produced a second consecutive clean sheet and proved Klinsmann right for leaving out veteran captain and defender Carlos Bocanegra.
Combined with Friday's 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in the snow, the defense's back-to-back shutouts helped the U.S. claim four points from six available and turn around a slow start to the hex.
Bocanegra's increasingly marginal role in the team served as a jumping-off point for a controversial Sporting News article last week that pictured a team seemingly in disarray. Unnamed players reportedly questioned Klinsmann's team selections and tactics, but those concerns appeared misplaced after Tuesday's result.
In fairness, both wins came with caveats. Thanks to the heavy snow and poor conditions in Denver, the victory over Costa Rica had less to do with tactics than guts. Against Mexico, the U.S. benefited from the referee's decision not to award Mexico a pair of penalty appeals.
The second, which came late in the second half, was especially fortunate for the U.S. when midfielder Maurice Edu tackled Javier Aquino from behind inside the box, but the referee awarded only a corner kick. Mexico out-shot the U.S. 10-1 (3-0 for shots on target) and took a staggering 15 corners.
But for this U.S. team, which is forging an identity based on grit and a refusal to dwell in the past, the result was a perfect fit.
"We are in really good shape now," said Beasley (via Yahoo! Sports). "The next game is always important, but getting points away from home like this is huge. You don't qualify for the World Cup on one night or with one game, but this feels like a big step."
This isn't time to celebrate, of course. The draw was only the U.S.' second on Mexican soil in World Cup qualifying, and the Americans are still just 16-32-13 all time against their rivals to the south. Seven matches remain in a tight qualifying group, and last week's infighting and negativity are still fresh memories.
But after Tuesday's gutsy performance at the Azteca, it's hard not to feel optimistic about this U.S. team.
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