World Cup qualifying cycles always have defining moments for teams.
For the U.S. men's national team, it could have very well been the days leading into last Friday's qualifier against Costa Rica, in which controversy and a seemingly growing internal frustration threatened to take down the institution.
Instead of the relentless probing questions swirling around the U.S. men's program, the relentless snow swirling around Dick's Sporting Goods Park took all of the negative attention and placed it elsewhere with impeccable timing. Mother nature works in mysterious ways.
There may very well still be a serious lack of cohesion between players and Jurgen Klinsmann and his coaching staff, as was outlined in the Sporting News' detailed report last week. The circumstances surrounding the victory over Los Ticos completely took the spotlight off what appeared to be a crumbling locker room, though, and turned it on how the Americans were able to combat the elements and turn back the clock to project an aura of the U.S. team of old.
"Whatever goes on the outside, you know inside of our team these group of guys have all the confidence in each other and belief that we can go out there and do our job," goalkeeper Brad Guzan told reporters after he posted a clean sheet in his return to the U.S. net.
Perception is everything in terms of keeping outside factors subdued, and anyone watching Friday saw was a team that Guzan described: A squad that was unified under adverse conditions, fought for each other and appeared focused on the only task that mattered, collecting points to improve its chances at reaching the 2014 World Cup.
As much as the match against Costa Rica should have been about the soccer and seeing how, or if, the U.S. improved since its loss to Honduras, the weather rendered that moot and stripped the game down beyond the scoreline, statistics and individual performances. The enduring plot line from the Snow Game was how the U.S. still very much equates to an "us" no matter the inner conflict that may exist.
“In the past stretch, even going back to the last stage of qualifying, the things that our team always has to be about, the fight, the commitment ... we looked at each other and said this isn’t what it needs to be," stalwart U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said following the victory. "As we move forward and the big games come, in order for us to be a team that competes at the highest level that has to be at its absolute highest whenever we step on the field."
The games don't come any bigger than Tuesday's encounter at Estadio Azteca, where Mexico is 68-1-6 all-time in World Cup qualifying, which includes a 5-0-1 mark against the United States.
In light of the happenings over the weekend, though, the U.S. is, in many ways, playing with house money entering the match, a reality that seemed like a pipe dream less than a week ago. It is the U.S. who is not supposed to win Tuesday regardless of the circumstances. It is the U.S. who currently sits in second place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and is guaranteed to have at least three points in the bag with the two toughest road games in the rear-view mirror. It is Mexico that is coming under pressure for accumulating two disappointing results, including blowing a two-goal lead in San Pedro Sula against the pesky Catrachos and mustering just two points from a pair of games.
The perceptions of both sides have changed considerably in a matter of days. With the U.S. reinforcing its reputation as a side that won't just roll over and die when the going gets tough, what once seemed like a surefire one-sided rout now appears to have given way to a battle between worthy adversaries.
Even though the reality is that both traditional regional powers are likely to conclude the Hexagonal with a top-four finish and reach the World Cup, the road to getting there needs its defining landmarks. By overcoming some snow-inspired challenges during one of the more tension-filled times imaginable, the U.S. sure looks to have had its watershed moment, and it could not have come at a more ideal time.
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