This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16 Fighting issue. Subscribe today!
THE STATS FROM the March World Cup qualifying match against Mexico couldn't have impressed U.S. boss Jurgen Klinsmann. His team was outshot 19-1, outmatched on corner kicks 15-2, outcrossed in open play 20-8. Still, a 0-0 draw was acceptable for the Yanks, especially when you consider the venue -- the imposing 105,000-seat Estadio Azteca, where the U.S. has avoided a loss just three times in 11 games.
That was then. The team that faces Mexico in a second qualifier on Sept. 10 in Columbus, Ohio, is coming off a summer scoring binge that couldn't have been predicted from that March match. Over their next 13 games, which included a run to the Gold Cup title in July, the Americans exploded for 41 goals. In fact, the Yanks' 2.53-gpg average in 2013 is tops in the team's 100-year history, and their 12-game winning streak is just three shy of Spain's world record in 2008-09.
Sure, blowout wins against Belize, Cuba and El Salvador in the Gold Cup helped pad the stats. But 10 of those goals came against teams ranked in FIFA's top 15: No. 10 Belgium (4-2 loss), No. 2 Germany (4-3 win) and No. 13 Bosnia-Herzegovina (4-3 win). By Aug. 8, the U.S. had gained 10 spots in three months to rank 19th, with another jump likely when the new rankings are released on Sept. 12.
The biggest question now for Klinsmann and his staff is whether the squad can keep it going in Ohio. "Creating chances is the one thing we have to do better against Mexico," says assistant coach Martin Vasquez, one of just two men (along with U.S. defender Edgar Castillo) to represent both countries at the senior level. "We'll take the same tight approach defensively, but if we put numbers in front of their goal every time and we get down the flank, we'll have opportunities to score."
So what's changed since the beginning of the year, when the U.S. found the net only twice in its first four games? For starters, players got to know their teammates during a rare extended training camp in May, learning tendencies and temperaments. "I think that's really why we started clicking, just having that time together," says midfielder Graham Zusi, who practiced extensively with Jozy Altidore for the first time, then assisted two of his four goals the next month. "After I learned what Jozy likes, it was only a matter of time."
Embracing Klinsmann's high-risk, high-reward system has paid dividends too. After almost two years, the U.S. has finally shed its defense-first mindset and is fully executing the German's free-flowing, possession-based attack.
The game against Mexico -- a side desperate for points after winning just one of its first six games in the final stage of qualifying -- will require far more focus from the U.S. than did the friendlies. All indications are that Klinsmann's squad will keep the shot differential much closer than in its August 2012 and March 2013 meetings with El Tri. Those matches bookended an eight-game stretch during which the U.S. averaged just 7.9 shots per game. In its 13 matches since then, the squad has almost doubled that rate to 15.3 shots per game.
"We are not here to defend or counterbreak," Klinsmann says. "We want to play eye to eye with top teams."
And that's something American soccer fans have waited a long time to see.