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The two faces of U.S. men's soccer

This congested summer of soccer was supposed to be the time that the U.S. men's national team peeled back its layers of secrecy heading into a World Cup year and secured itself an identity.

What it got instead was two identities.

Wednesday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Mexico at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City arrives with Bob Bradley's squad nursing a split personality based on its drastically wavering performances of the past two months.

It would be wonderful to think that the "real" USA is the one that flourished over the final three games of the Confederations Cup in South Africa, where a dream run took the Americans from the verge of a wretched early exit to striking distance of their first FIFA tournament title. Talk of a turning point has been abundant since the unexpected victories over an in-form Egypt and European champion Spain (then the world's No. 1-ranked team) and a near-miss against Brazil in the final. For the U.S., those results represented a permanent change in fortunes and an arrival at world soccer's top table.

However, spectacular as the Spain game in particular was and as efficiently organized as the USA looked towards the end of the Confederations Cup, there are still no guarantees that the good times are here to stay.

A World Cup qualifying defeat in Costa Rica in June highlighted just how disjointed the Americans can be when they are not firing. The losses to Italy and Brazil that began the U.S.'s Confederations Cup campaign were also embarrassing, giving little indication of the improvement that would follow.

"The biggest thing we need is consistency," U.S. record goal scorer Landon Donovan admitted. "What people saw throughout the Confederations Cup was a couple of bad games and a couple of very good games.

"It is not a question of whether we are capable of doing it – it is whether we can do it every time we play. Next year at the World Cup you get three games and you have got to advance. After that, you take it one game at a time."

The events in South Africa were an indicator of potential, at a higher level than previously believed possible. But consistency is not built over two-and-a-half games and Bradley knows it.

If the lapses and confusion that surfaced in Costa Rica are to be exposed again, then surely they will be in the melting pot of the Azteca, where 105,000 Mexican fans will hiss and seethe and scream and loathe. Yet this game also represents an opportunity to change history.

The USA has never defeated Mexico on its own soil, going an unpleasant 0-22-1. Bradley, though, feels his team is better primed than ever to end the drought.

"We hope we are getting to the point where we start seeing some of the positives to come out of the hard work we have put in over the last couple of years," Bradley said. "International soccer is full of challenges and preparing yourself for them. We are ready for this challenge and looking forward to it."

The toughest task for this U.S. team may be in living up to the expectations it has created for itself. The 5-0 defeat against Mexico in the Gold Cup final by a weaker USA squad has not altered the perception that the Americans are on the rise and that big things are now expected of them at the World Cup.

Awareness of the national team has rarely been at a higher point, and there is a feeling and desire within the camp that the momentum must be maintained.

"There is definitely more demanded of us now, mainly because of what happened in South Africa," Donovan said. "It is up to us to meet those expectations and I believe we can.

"It is an exciting time to be involved with this team, when people are looking at us and recognizing what we are trying to do.

"It is up to us to show the real U.S. is the one that has performed in big games. That is the message we want to send."

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