2012 was a pretty solid and even somewhat of a historic year for the United States Men's National Team. They picked up victories in Italy and in Mexico, they won their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, and they closed out the year with a comeback that earned them a draw when away to Russia. All is right with the Jurgen Klinsmann era, yes?
Not exactly, as I found out upon looking back at the past twelve months.
2012 United States Men's National Team year in review: Player of the year
As I did for my New York Red Bulls 2012 season review, I separated POTY and team MVP because I don't believe them to be one and the same for this particular squad. Clint Dempsey, named the 2012 US Soccer Male Athlete of the Year, gets the nod here. Dempsey's 2012 started off in a big way when he netted the lone goal in Team USA's historic victory at Italy back on February 29. He then couldn't stop scoring during 2014 World Cup qualifying, burying five goals in the team's most important contests of the calendar year.
Dempsey's best performance of 2012 came on October 16, when the United States hosted Guatemala in a game both sides wanted to win in order to finish atop their qualifying group. The US also needed to earn at least a point to guarantee a spot in the "Hex." Things got interesting and scary for the home side just five minutes into play when Carlos Ruiz opened the scoring for Guatemala. Dempsey helped the US equalize five minutes after that tally, though, when he assisted on a Carlos Bocanegra goal that was scored off a corner. Dempsey added two goals of his own before the halftime break, and the US went on to earn a comfortable and much needed 3-1 result.
Honorable mention: Herculez Gomez
2012 United States Men's National Team year in review: MVP
One thing became crystal clear as I reviewed USMNT matches from the past year: This team isn't winning anything of any real value without Michael Bradley on the pitch. The 25-year old Bradley, who has in the past been somewhere between a serviceable and pretty good player while wearing a US shirt, emerged as a key man starting back in May when the USMNT drubbed over-matched Scotland 5-1, and his absence was very noticeable during the team's September WC qualifiers against Jamaica, contests those two sides split.
I liken Bradley to Red Bulls midfielder Dax McCarty in that neither man will routinely make highlight reels or earn headlines, but both are pivotal players for their teams. Bradley's consistent play and don't-stop style make teammates on both ends of the pitch better, and his vision gives the United States a counterattack that is often undervalued and underrated. I'm very excited to watch Bradley progress as a national team player and an overall footballer.
Honorable mentions: Dempsey, Tim Howard
2012 United States Men's National Team year in review: Perspective
Other than the US advancing to the next stage of World Cup qualifying, I'll remember 2012 as the year when I stopped caring too much about the games that really don't matter. Go back to the night of August 15 when the United States stunned many within the soccer world when they went down to Estadio Azteca and earned a first ever away win against hated rivals Mexico. I called that victory a "massive" result for the Jurgen Klinsmann army less than twelve hours after the final whistle had sounded, and my confidence in the team's manager was sky high.
Then the US traveled to Jamaica one month later and lost 2-1 in a WC qualifier.
Along with following US Soccer, I am also a supporter of Dutch football for a variety of reasons, family background included. Do you know why I never get overly concerned when the Dutch lose a friendly to the likes of Belgium or even rivals Germany? Because I know, when all is said and done, that the Netherlands will always easily advance to the knockout stage of every meaningful tournament regardless of any squabbles within the team or questions about their manager.
It's time all of us within the US Soccer community get to that point with the USMNT. I understand that Klinsmann's current squad doesn't match up with those found in Spain, Germany and even Holland. It's 2012, and American footballers are no longer struggling to merely get looks from decent clubs located around the world. They're featuring for sides that are playing in European competitions, and noteworthy stars such as Chris Wondolowski and Jozy Altidore dominated in league matches over the past twelve months.
The point of this section is simple. Wins at Italy and at Mexico are nice, but they are no longer reasons to schedule parades or take off a day from work in order to celebrate. When the US can compete with and even defeat Mexico on a yearly basis, we'll know that we are in a good spot at the international level. Considering that Klinsmann sides have gone 1-0-1 against our rivals from the south in the past year and a half, I'd say he has US Soccer moving in the right direction.
2012 United States Men's National Team year in review: Concern for the future?
Howard, Bocanegra, Dempsey and Donovan are all important and talented players, but they also aren't getting any younger. Other than the previously mentioned Bradley, I'd be lying if I didn't say that there are serious concerns about the state of the USMNT once the summer of 2014 comes and goes. 2013 is going to be a crucial year for the US, and not just because of the Hex. Certain younger players are going to have to prove that they deserve more than just a look from Klinsmann in the upcoming twelve months.
It appears, on paper, that both Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler could feature in the US back line down the road, but we don't yet know for sure. Players such as Terrence Boyd, Juan Agudelo, Graham Zusi and Geoff Cameron showed but glimpses of brilliance at the international level in 2012. I'll believe that Timmy Chandler is fully dedicated to the US Soccer cause when/if he is with the team two summers from now. That goalkeeper Brad Guzan couldn't break onto the pitch with a weapon for even a USMNT friendly worries me greatly about the future of that position.
2013 could also be a make-or-break year for the previously mentioned Altidore, who fell out of favor at the international level before making a solid return to the US squad in the team's November friendly at Russia. I have no doubt that Altidore can be a US mainstay who contributes both up top and as a forward who drops back and creates opportunities for fellow goal scorers. He how has to provide Klinsmann with a similar feeling of confidence.
2012 United States Men's National Team year in review: Overall
I can't place a final grade on the USMNT's calendar year because the team remains a significant work in progress heading into the February WC qualifier at Honduras. Klinsmann still hasn't settled on a first choice starting eleven, partially because of the inconsistent play we saw from multiple starters in 2012, and worries regarding the team's back line leaves me believing that nobody can call any upcoming WC qualifier a "gimme" for the United States. As I stated earlier in this review, Klinsmann certainly has US Soccer going in the right direction.
Whether or not they reach their final destination in time has yet to be determined.
Zac has been covering US Soccer for Yahoo! Sports since 2011. His favorite current national team player is Clint Dempsey only because of his love for Tottenham Hotspur, and he wishes that Brad Friedel was still minding the nets for Team USA.