Progress in soccer can be measured in a number of ways. Sometimes it is as easy as boiling things down to wins and losses. Other times, it is the totality of the on-field product. Sometimes, it's just a matter of overcoming adversity. Follow AVI CREDITOR on Twitter
With the U.S. men's national team of late, it has been a little bit of everything. The same group of players who struggled to get by the likes of Antigua and Barbuda in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying has given way to a more dynamic team that is as deep with options as the U.S. has ever had.
During the current nine-game winning streak, a U.S. record, the Americans have bested a Germany side that may have been vastly shorthanded but also boasted plenty of quality in its own right. They have won a World Cup qualifier on the road. They have taken care of business in meaningful games on home soil.
They have also played with the aggression, flair, chemistry, expression and passion that Jurgen Klinsmann envisioned when taking the reins almost two years ago, and the consistency is starting to follow across two sets of rosters.
Granted, the level of competition at the Gold Cup is hardly World Cup-level, and there is still work to be done before calling the USA a finished product, but just about everything to emanate from the last couple of months has been encouraging. Juxtapose that with Mexico's struggles across its two sets of rosters, and it's a fine time to be donning a U.S. crest.
"Collectively they're a very good team, they almost play by memory," El Salvador manager Agustin Castillo said through a translator after Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Americans in Baltimore. "They can find their spaces. It's almost like every time they pass the ball into a space it's going to nobody until somebody appears and actually meets the ball.
"It's a memory type of movement. They also have a very good small space kind of give-and-go type of play. Every time that they have a play they find two or three different ways to break you down."
One would think that Castillo was talking about a cohesive group of players that has been together for years, but this exact team, save for pre-knockout stage additions, has been together for all of three weeks.
The January training camp may have acted as a bit of a warm-up exercise for a number of the players, but the fact that the 23 players currently in camp have been able to mesh together to such a successful degree reflects well on Klinsmann and his staff. Klinsmann's methods and decisions have not always been conventional or the most popular, but he is getting the most out of his squad on a regular basis.
"Look at the guys and the run they put on in the Gold Cup," U.S. forward Eddie Johnson said following his goal and assist off the bench Sunday. "They've been playing some fantastic football, and it's a lot of guys that were in the January camp, so it's some of the guys that I'm familiar with. These are the guys trying to push themselves -- I wouldn't even say it's an A or a B Team -- just trying to push themselves and put themselves in a good spot to make the World Cup team.
"It's a deep pool, and this is where we want soccer to be in America, where we can put not as many European [based] players on the field and still go out there and still play some good attacking football and get the goals that we did [Sunday]."
During the Gold Cup, the USA has uncovered several players who are World Cup roster discussion-worthy. The likes of Chris Wondolowski, Mix Diskerud, Stuart Holden, Joe Corona, Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres have all provided reasons to be kept under a watchful eye on the radar going forward.
The USA has scored four or more goals in three of the four games in the competition, with Landon Donovan answering the bell and removing all shreds of doubt that he belongs with the top squad in the coming months. Posting crooked numbers against the likes of Belize, Cuba and El Salvador is not so outrageous, but when thinking back to the struggles the Klinsmann-era USA used to have against inferior competition, the fact that the USA is back in an enforcer position shows growth and a stated confidence.
"We're getting more and more comfortable, and the beauty of it is we can score and create chances in a lot of different ways," Donovan said. "Obviously our set pieces have been very good, when we move the ball quickly and break teams down through the middle of the field we've had chances that way. We've done a very good job of getting chances wide and getting crosses in the box. Counterattacks we're getting chances, so we're scoring in all different ways, and I think for a team to defend against that for 90 minutes is going to be really difficult."
The myriad of scoring opportunities and the amount of players responsible means that, assuming all goes according to plan in the September and October World Cup qualifiers, Klinsmann will have a heck of a time narrowing down his selection for the final spots on the 23-man roster he takes to Brazil. Considering the past alternatives, though, and with qualification looking more and more likely with each passing qualifier, it's certainly a welcome problem.
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