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Jun 10, 2014

This is the U.S.'s definitive moment

United States goalkeeper Tim Howard keeps himself thinking positively entering this World Cup.

SAO PAULO -- The Talking Heads once opined, "Well, how did I get here?" For the U.S. men's national team at the World Cup, it was through a qualifying odyssey that included plenty of big moments.

The U.S. is on the cusp of the definitive point in this cycle, one in which its success or failure will be judged. As such, the memories from the past 3½ years will fade into the background over the next several weeks, replaced by dramatic incidents of all kinds. Four years ago, the images of goals by the likes of Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley in South Africa dwarfed those of, say, a Conor Casey during qualifying. Quite understandable, but the significant incidents from the current cycle shouldn't be forgotten.

The hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann in July 2011 has to be considered a huge moment. His arrival after the ousting of predecessor Bob Bradley certainly signaled a change in direction. But the house that is the national team program is built over time, with some components flashier than others. And in many cases, the work done builds upon -- rather than tears down -- what was there before. The pursuit of dual nationals has certainly reached new heights under Klinsmann, but it's worth remembering that of the seven dual nationals on the World Cup roster, three -- Timothy Chandler, Mix Diskerud and Jermaine Jones -- were given their first caps under Bradley. The blooding of new players over the course of the entire cycle, as well as their subsequent improvement, may not have been linear, but progress was made nonetheless.

But circumstances can conspire to define a coach's tenure and how teams are remembered. And without question, the "Snow Bowl" victory over Costa Rica remains a massive moment for the U.S. and Klinsmann.

The United States win vs. Costa Rica set them on a trajectory toward the 2014 World Cup.

It was a match that came on the heels of a disheartening defeat to Honduras as well as revelations in the Sporting News of player unrest and dissatisfaction with Klinsmann's methods. Frankly, the promise of the whole Klinsmann experiment was looking suspect. Yet amid blizzard conditions at Dick's Sporting Goods Park, the U.S. ground out a 1-0 victory thanks to a Clint Dempsey goal and some stout defending.

It was a win that set in motion a cascade of positive results. That victory was followed by a 0-0 tie against Mexico in the Estadio Azteca, just the second time the U.S. had avoided defeat in a World Cup qualifier at the famed venue. Given El Tri's struggles at home throughout qualifying, there has been a strong temptation to downplay the result. But the draw has to be put in the context of the moment.

Combined with the win over Costa Rica, it created a vast reservoir of confidence, one that the Americans carried into the run of three victories in the June qualifiers that essentially booked the Americans' ticket to Brazil. And more importantly, it bolstered the belief that Klinsmann was capable of leading the program forward.

Credit is due to the players as well. Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Dempsey, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler all increased their profiles over the course of the cycle, and while national team duty does plenty to test a player's ability, it's important to remember that the vast majority of a player's improvement is down to the work he does at club level.

That's not to say that Klinsmann has been a mere bystander. In terms of style, he melded old with new, looking to press teams more in their half while also maintaining a healthy dose of pragmatism. And he has made his share of bold decisions. He firmly cast his lot with young defenders Omar Gonzalez and Besler, when logic might have dictated opting for more experience.

Of course, the biggest of these decisions was his axing of Donovan from the World Cup squad. Without question, Klinsmann's initial handling of Donovan's sabbatical, in which he made the L.A. Galaxy attacker earn his way back into the team via the Gold Cup, proved to be the right move, especially in terms of making sure the team remained a meritocracy. But Donovan's ouster from the World Cup team looks to be a mistake given the player's talent and experience. For good or ill, it's a decision that will not be forgotten soon.

The extent to which that moment may bleed into the World Cup is still to be determined. Klinsmann and co will no doubt be focused on how to navigate their way past Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the proverbial Group of Death. Then again, what takes place prior to the tournament has a ripple effect on what will take place over the next few weeks.

No doubt, the U.S. will be hoping the collective impact will result in a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.