|"U-S-A, c'mon and raise up" -- Petey Pablo.|
2012 was supposed to be an "off" year for the United States national team, wasn't it? That was the impression most of us were working under, right?
It wasn't a World Cup year or even a Gold Cup year. The U23s failed to qualify for the London Olympics, so we couldn't even circle that on the calendar.
On top of that, as the calendar turned to January, we still had about 13 months to wait for relevant 2014 World Cup qualifiers, too.
Funny, as we sit on the eve of the final U.S. game of the year Wednesday morning in Russia -- the 14th overall -- it's certainly been a lot more hectic and busy than anyone with a passing interest in the team could have anticipated.
Most, if not all of the unexpected busyness can be chalked up to a rocky time by Jurgen Klinsmann & Co. in the penultimate round of CONCACAF qualifying. It only lasted a couple days but the five-alarm panic between the Sept. 7 1-0 loss to Jamaica in Kingston and the 2-1 win over the Reggae Boyz four days later in Columbus was very real -- and opened up a potentially disastrous "what if" scenario for the entire men's United States soccer set up should the national team failed to even make the final round of CONCACAF qualification.
The U.S. did what it seems to do best since the turn of the century: get the job done with its back against the wall (assuming Ghana isn't involved in any capacity.)
The other side to the 2012 coin was the friendlies.
Lots and lots of friendlies.
Granted international friendlies -- soccer's cocktease --serve as primarily a money-maker and people like myself found a very difficult time looking at the scheduling this year as nothing more than a money-grab by the U.S. Soccer Federation. That said, the USSF deserves a little bit of credit for friendlies at Italy, Mexico and Russia and a high-profile game in May vs. Brazil in New Jersey is about the best you can do given the circumstances. The wins at Italy and, historically, at Mexico don't amount to a hill of beans, but it's not like they're a bad thing, either.
At this point we all realize nothing much will be discovered Wednesday in Krasnodar. It's the true definition of a one-off, with the squad given barely a day to train together. Maybe we can all dust off some tired Cold War era Soviet jokes on Twitter during the match. That's about it. Perhaps lament the "Red Dawn" remake while we're at it.
When it's over, Klinsmann will talk in the usual coachspeak about "the process" and "evaluating" players. As fans we'll latch on and cling to whomever plays well as "the future" or bemoan the fact 2012 will end and Jermaine Jones will have logged the most minutes of any player in the Stars and Stripes. If anything encapsulates the U.S. in 2012 better than that fact, let's hear it.
That's the nature of friendlies. They are what they are.
All it means is 2012 was supposed to be the calm before the storm of what should be a vital and important 2013. The events of the last 12 months set up next year as one of the more anticipated in recent memory for the U.S. Realistically the last two World Cup qualification processes felt like a fait accompli. Not even the most fatalist fan out there worried that the U.S. wouldn't punch their tickets to Germany or South Africa.
Hell, as soon as Asamoah Gyan did his best to send the U.S. packing from Rustenberg two and a half years ago, the many U.S. fans probably already started looking into booking hotels and flights to Brazil. The U.S. seemed to be at a stage where qualifying for the World Cup was expected; a lock.
Perhaps this is reading too much into the inconsistent play of the U.S. offense or the habitual lapses in the back four against inferior opposition. Maybe it's putting way too much stock in the improvements in CONCACAF. It could even be a lingering lack of faith that Klinsmann -- with the money on the line -- is going to get all his tactical and personnel decisions right.
Whatever plays out over 90 minutes Wednesday against Russia isn't changing that fact.
And however you draw it up the events of 2012 make 2013 as intriguing -- and anticipated -- a year in U.S. soccer as we've seen in a long time.
* Let us all rejoice: Jozy Altidore's two-game "demotion" is over. Is Altidore, probably the best U.S. option at forward? Yes, probably. Should he have his place in the starting XI guaranteed? Absolutely not. While his league goals for AZ against the likes of ADO Den Haag might make for nice YouTube clips, the bulk of U.S. fans aren't going to continue to tolerate listless games where the 23-year-old makes zero impact. Altidore has proven he can be a useful, effective player on the international stage, but you don't automatically get places in the starting lineup -- unless you happen to play for England.
It's surprising Altidore being excluded last month was such a big deal in the U.S. soccer-sphere. Players get dropped for internationals all the time, and Klinsmann turned out to be right via using Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon.
* The other big "news" from this friendly is German-born Timmy Chandler is back in the fold after deciding he basically didn't want to play for the U.S. anymore. Until Chandler plays in an official FIFA game and is tied to the U.S. don't read too much into anything he says.
Look at it this way. Philip Lahm, the German national team captain and starting right back is 29. When he hasn't played there, Joachim Loew has played a center back, Jerome Boateng at right back. For the Germans most recent match, uncapped 22-year-old Sebastian Jung has been called in. Remember, Chandler is still only 22.
This one won't be decided until next year with Chandler putting on a U.S. shirt and seeing the field in a qualifier. Ultimately, if Chandler doesn't want to play for the U.S., so be it. It's his choice.
* There's been a lot of talk (via interviews and articles) recently about Landon Donovan's existential "crisis," where he's wondered aloud how much more soccer he has inside him. Donovan is now 30. He's been going nonstop for almost 14 years. He's not going to play forever.
Is he simply worn out from a long season? Will a couple months off allow him to rediscover his spark?
However it pans out, Klinsmann needs to start finding Plan B or and accept a world without Donovan.
It's hard not to hear Donovan addressing his future and think of Lars Ulrich from the "Some Kind of Monster" documentary, when he wondered aloud (4:40 mark of video below) if, "Jason is the future and Metallic is the past."
Is Donovan the past? As crazy as it sounds, he could be -- and that's not on his talent level, but his mentality. Ball is in his court.
* Excited that Klinsmann called in some genuine pacy wingers in the forms of Joe Gyau (20) and Josh Gatt (21). Chances are they don't play, but if we learned something in 2012, the U.S. needs to develop some different ways to unlock defenses than playing through the middle.
* Without Donovan or Clint Dempsey, figure for Michael Bradley assert his influence over this game even more. It would be nice to see him playing in a slightly advanced, more offensive role and leave the dirty work to somebody else. Either way, the more time Bradley and Danny Williams can play at the same time to develop chemistry is a good thing.
* Believe it or not, Juan Agudelo has already amassed 15 caps.
* Numbers fun: The U.S. has 20 players on its roster from 12 different leagues. Russia called in 26, with all but Denis Cheryshev (Real Madrid B) playing domestically.
* In a perfect world, Bradley and Russia manager Fabio Capello enjoy a post-match expresso with each other. Maybe talk about their favorite scarf designer.
* Remember how great Russia, in particular Andrey Arshavin were at Euro 2008? Yeah, me neither.
|Lost to the sands of history, Stalin also invented "Movember."|
Call is a 4-3-1-2, at least to start. Figure all six subs are used by the second half, thus changing the set-up.
GK -- Howard
DEF -- Chandler -- Bocanegra -- Cameron -- Johnson
MID -- Williams -- Bradley -- Jones
ATT MID -- Kljestan
FOR -- Altidore -- Boyd
If the U.S. ties, it ties.