I'm telling you, man. The U.S. Men's National Team is looking kind of good these days.
Not super good, mind you, but kind of good. And the good news is that kind of good, right now, is good enough for first place midway through the CONCACAF Hexagonal round. Kind of good looks good enough, right now, to get U.S. Soccer to the World Cup.
Last night, the Americans took on Panama in Seattle. The day started with the USMNT tied for first with Costa Rica and Mexico in the six-team group, second behind Costa Rica on goal differential, but Costa Rica and Mexico drew earlier today. USA would vault to the top of the table with a win.
They won. This shouldn't be a shock, since it's in the headline, but it also shouldn't because the United States secretly never lose World Cup Qualifiers at home. They haven't lost in 12 years, and are 21-0-2 over that span.
So a win, whether you expected it or not, was expected tonight. It's how they won, though, that is worth talking about.
The USMNT faithful have always criticized the team for not having an identity or fluid style of play. Part of that is because for many years, the team didn't have an identity or fluid style of play, and also because of the American soccer inferiority complex, which I'm considering referring to as ASIC. I'll decide by the end of the post. The truth, though, is that they do have an identity, and they do have a style of play, and at times like tonight, it can be fluid and deadly and, all in all, objectively beautiful.
They counter. They don't have too, too much in the way of world-class talent—expatiation anon—but they have a few central midfielders who can both break up play and link up with the advanced players or run with the ball through the middle. That's valuable, and actually kind of rare. They have speedy wingers who can put in a good ball. They have a number 10 who's both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, and they have a striker who's big and powerful and in form and has now scored three matches in a row. That's something. And when they're on the break, like they were against Panama for the first goal in the 36th minute, they're honest-to-God a pretty dangerous team.
U.S. Soccer have somehow amassed a few stars, too. Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore are big(gish) names that compete in Europe and play vital(ish) roles for their respective clubs. But the Americans also have pockets of talent elsewhere, and they are starting to resemble a team that has a smidgen of depth. Case in point: the United States' second goal.
Geoff Cameron has one of the most impressive resumes in the squad. He was named one of the Best XI in the MLS, and in his first season at English Premier side Stoke City last year, he started in 29 of 38 league games and was used as a sub in six more. He's a hard-nosed defender, a 6-foot-3 brute, and he can't get on the field at his preferred position of centerback because Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have built something that is starting to resemble a rapport. But Cameron can also play in the midfield, so he was on the pitch yesterday, filling in while midfielder Jermaine Jones nursed a concussion.
Cameron won the ball and started the counterattack that led to the first goal. And if his interception went unnoticed in the first, everyone was screaming his name by the second. He received a pass in the middle of the park and lifted a filthy 40-yard ball over the top of the Panama defense to converted winger Eddie Johnson—subbing in for the suspended Graham Zusi, by the way—who controlled it with a great first touch and cooly slotted it home. You're not going to see too many better goals than that from the Germans, or the Spanish, or the Brazilians, or the Dutch. I'm not saying they're as good as those teams. I'm just saying.
So I think it might be time for optimism. After all, just a few months ago we wondered if the USMNT were even going to make the World Cup, and today, they're two points clear of Costa Rica and Mexico with a game in hand on El Tri. USA can widen the gap with a win next Tuesday night in Utah against Honduras. This is America, and ASIC is a thing, so many of us are still half-holding our breaths, expecting U.S. Soccer to choke. But they're halfway through the Hex. They haven't choked yet, and the window to do so is closing rather rapidly.
And I'm telling you. They're looking kind of good. [ESPN/Univision]