It had been 158 days since the United States men's national team had won.
Banners calling for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's ouster were spotted at StubHub Center before the game on Sunday. "JK Out," read one of them. "Red card the coach," said another.
Even though it was only January camp, and it was merely a friendly, and it was just the first year into a new World Cup cycle, and most all the players were in their offseasons, and the roster was weird – a hybrid between the senior and Olympic national teams – there was a tangible and unusual sense of relief when the U.S. beat Panama 2-0. All those caveats suggested that the score in this game shouldn't much matter. But a lot of fans – and an increasingly critical media – had grown desperate for any kind of positive sign to grasp onto.
While this isn't a terribly consequential period for the USA – rebuilding as it is for this July's CONCACAF Gold Cup, next year's Copa America, quite possibly the 2017 Confederations Cup and another Gold Cup that same summer and then the 2018 World Cup – performance of late had been dire. In the three previous games alone, the Americans had conceded nine times, unsurprisingly losing every time. They had won just once in their previous nine games.
For some time, this team has been on a disconcerting trajectory, if you could even call it a trajectory. It has careened, seeming aimlessly and thoughtlessly, between formations, tactics, lineups and playing styles. That house style we had heard so much about early in Klinsmann's tenure has yet to manifest itself. Indeed, even the old staples of fitness and organization and fight have often been misplaced.
The program as a whole doesn't appear to be subject to a substantive overarching vision; it adheres to no apparent philosophy. Klinsmann was supposed to be the big ideas man, but his team mostly plays without any – new or old. Klinsmann was supposed to lift this program to a higher level – justifying his salary three times that of his predecessor Bob Bradley, who in retrospect did a commendable job – but instead, it often looks like a cheap imitation of its old self.
For all the talk about progress and development – so much talk – Klinsmann's biggest contribution has come in leveraging his playing-day fame to convince a spate of German-born dual-citizens to represent the United States. In just about every other area that falls under his remit as technical director – a title ascribed to him when he renewed his contract through 2018 in December 2013 – there has been chaos. Even the youth national teams, while awash in more talent than ever, have regressed by any objective measure.
The Yanks have been mired in an identity crisis, underscored by the experiment with a 3-5-2 formation in the 3-2 loss to Chile two weeks ago. The change in tactics showed real promise only to be scrapped ahead of the second half, when everything would fall apart.
Against Panama, Klinsmann deployed a 4-2-3-1, which hadn't been seen in quite some time either. It has often felt like Klinsmann is as concerned about being the cleverest guy in the room as he is with winning games.
Nonetheless, he got it right on Sunday.
After a jittery start, the USA took hold of the game and never let go. Against solid but hardly stellar opposition, the Americans were "proactive" – a favorite Klinsmann buzzword – and moved the ball around swiftly. For the first time since the World Cup, the Americans recaptured some of their old feistiness in a testy game – recall how the USA knocked Panama out of World Cup qualifying with two late goals in October 2013 – which felt like a positive sign, somehow. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey got in several spats with their markers.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando prevented an early deficit with a fine save on Erick Davis's effort from a looping Blas Perez cross. Michael Bradley, who was excellent throughout, as he had been against Chile, put the USA ahead in the 27th minute with a corner swung directly into the far top corner of goal (also known as an "Olimpico") after he'd nearly pulled that rarity at the near post three minutes earlier.
Ten minutes later, forward Gyasi Zardes, making his first start and leaving a strong impression, won the ball in midfield and slipped it through the back line and into the path of Dempsey. The captain, who had been all but invisible up to that point, scissor-stepped around the ball, bypassing goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, and slid it into the empty net under pressure from a final defender. Zardes would later set up Bradley with an open shot as well with a deft chested pass, but the midfielder ripped it right at Penedo.
Late in the half, Rimando hit Matt Besler with a difficult square ball that should have been routine. Besler slipped and Panama striker Blas Perez scampered away with it but sliced his finish comically wide.
The second half was fairly uneventful, even though it was just as cohesive from the Americans as the first had been. They plainly gained confidence as they went and would forge two more major chances. Around the hour mark, Bradley lifted a free kick right onto Jermaine Jones' forehead, but the newly minted central defender nodded it straight at Penedo for an easy save. A short while later, Brek Shea, drafted into an unfamiliar left back role, provided substitute Chris Wondolowski with a fine opportunity, but he failed to convert a chance that looked eerily like his famous miss against Belgium in the round of 16 in Brazil last summer.
So 2-0 it ended, as a fair account of the action. Plainly, there is much to sort out yet. Klinsmann sometimes comes across as an orchestra conductor with a bad and untreated case of attention deficit disorder, making for a cacophonous noise all around him. One good performance doesn't dull that image any.
Still, he deserves credit for a complete performance. On Sunday at least, Klinsmann seemed to have his entire team playing off the same sheet music, in tune.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.