U.S. team year in review -- it wasn't really that bad, was it?
Was 2015 really that bad for the United States men's national team?
In 2015, they went on the road and defeated Germany and the Netherlands, teams that sat first and sixth, respectively, in FIFA's world rankings at the time. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's squad finished the year on top of their World Cup qualifying group, set up to qualify easily for the Hexagonal round.
The Americans integrated a few talented new faces like Gyasi Zardes, Darlington Nagbe and Matt Miazga, players who can make a significant impact on the road to Russia and beyond. Near the end of the year, the head coach seemed to (finally) learn from past mistakes, deploying sensible lineups that put players in familiar positions where they could succeed.
So why are many men's national team supporters calling 2015 a failure?
"I think that the negative probably overshadowed [the positive] a little bit," former national team forward Brian McBride said in looking back at the year.
On one hand, this is an understandable perspective. The Americans failed to win the Gold Cup, finishing a disappointing fourth, and then lost the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico, a defeat that means they won't play in the 2017 Confederations Cup. There were other low points as well, notably a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Brazil, a game in which the U.S. never had a chance. On the field, the Stars and Stripes looked stagnant at times and lost in others.
But on the other, let's maintain perspective. While losing the Gold Cup hurts -- and finishing fourth is an embarrassment -- the defeat isn't a large setback in the grand scheme. Not reaching the Confederations Cup means the U.S. misses out on some experience playing in Russia, but there's no proven connection between competing in that tournament and success at the following year's World Cup, which is the only thing that really matters. At least some of the on-field inconsistency is the byproduct of trying to install new players within the team.
Was it ugly? Yes. Did Klinsmann find some answers or some way to succeed in the future? Perhaps.
One key is Nagbe, a promising player who donned the red, white and blue for the first time. "I think that he's a player who we haven't seen come through our national team in a very long time," McBride says. "He'll continue to grow. He's a very young player who keeps getting better and better."
Former national teamer and current ESPN color man Taylor Twellman agrees. "Nagbe has the tools to be a special player, especially now with his confidence in the central midfield spot. He looks to be a true No. 8 who doesn't lose possession and, more importantly, he puts in work defensively. His inclusion will no doubt help Michael Bradley."
Nagbe, who earned eligibility late in the year and still hasn't started a game for the U.S., was a bright spot, but his eventual impact remains unknown. In fact, none of what happened in 2015 means much now. "I think this year was not so much a progression as it was a fact-finding for Jurgen and everybody to start to figure out how the team is going to shape up," McBride said.
By definition, the year was a time to experiment, a period in which Klinsmann and his staff have the luxury of time. If a team is going to have a down year, the one following the World Cup is the best time to do so. The question now is whether the troubles in 2015 were simply small missteps or indicative of larger issues.
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Before the final two matches of the year, I would have been inclined to worry that they were the latter, that Klinsmann and his staff (but mostly Klinsmann, who is absolutely the leader and final decision-maker) were following the wrong path. Those thoughts changed during the games against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago. And really, it was about one player specifically.
Fabian Johnson, one of the most talented (if not the most talented) members of the U.S. squad, usually plays left midfield for Borussia Monchengladbach. For the United States, however, he had been playing everywhere: right-back, left-back, right midfield, left midfield. Switching positions constantly is a difficult thing to do, especially at the international level, where players have little time to train together, and Johnson, who had an October blowout with Klinsmann, was tired of being shuffled around.
In the two World Cup qualifiers, the coach deployed his skilled charge at left midfield and left him there. Johnson looked comfortable and played well. The decision to listen to his player and take Johnson's wishes into account is something Klinsmann hasn't done in the past. It's a small thing but perhaps a sign that he's willing to learn.
"I don't think Klinsmann went through this year and didn't learn anything," Twellman said. "Now, in saying that, will we see those signs when 2016 comes around?"
That is the big question. How much did Klinsmann learn from the struggles of 2015 and how much will he apply those lessons going forward? We won't know until the Americans take the field again -- they play Iceland in a friendly on Jan. 31 -- but the last two matches of the year were encouraging.
Looking ahead, the U.S. has more World Cup qualifying followed by the Copa America Centenario in the next six months. They should defeat Guatemala, winning a home-and-home series that would qualify them for the final round of 2018 qualifying. As for the Copa America, which sees the best in CONMEBOL come to the U.S., it will be a huge test for Klinsmann, the type of tournament that can show signs of progress. If the Americans do well, they'll quiet the critics. But even if they don't, it's still a team trending in the right direction.
If Nagbe gets integrated more fully into the starting XI, if Johnson plays well on the left wing, if Zardes scores a goal or two and if the team continues to find its way into becoming a cohesive unit, the stumbles of 2015 look more palatable, like successful experiments rather than abject failures.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.