Bruce Arena has restored the U.S.'s famous fight and team spirit
When Tuesday's World Cup qualifying matches in CONCACAF are completed, there stands a decent chance that the U.S. men's national team could slip back into fourth place in the Hexagonal standings. Panama will face a Honduras side that has been a bit of a train wreck so far. If the Canaleros prevail at home, they will leapfrog the Americans and, for the moment, move into the region's third and final automatic qualifying slot.
Even if that's the case, it shouldn't diminish what the U.S. has accomplished in the past two weeks because the Americans took another significant step toward World Cup qualification. In March, the U.S. was in trouble, bottom of the table after two games. It then secured four points against Honduras and Panama, which was looked at as the minimum needed to get the Americans' stuttering qualification campaign back on track. This time around, three points seemed to be a realistic target, given that the pair of fixtures consisted of a highly winnable game against Trinidad & Tobago, but also a daunting trip to Mexico's Estadio Azteca, a venue where only on rare occasions has it avoided defeat.
Instead, the U.S. not only took care of business against the Soca Warriors but also secured a valuable draw against Mexico that other CONCACAF foes will struggle to duplicate. The planning by manager Bruce Arena was meticulous, the execution by the players impressive. All told, Arena used 20 different players over the two matches.
Better yet, with each passing match under Arena, the Americans look more like themselves again. The team spirit that has long been its foundation is back, and as captain Michael Bradley put it, "I think Bruce has done a very good job of coming in and little by little working at just raising the level across the board, and a big part of that is this idea of team, of spirit, of mentality, of balls and understanding that we have good players, we have a good team, but we're not good enough to just step on the field and think that things are going to take care of themselves."
It has been clear that this aspect of the U.S. team had gone missing at the end of 2016, and with work put in by the players and Arena, that fight is now back.
"But what about the quality of play?" you might ask. A fair point. Progress in this area has been a bit more uneven -- mirroring life on the road in CONCACAF -- but it has been made on a few fronts.
Christian Pulisic has taken on more and more responsibility, and while Sunday's match against El Tri wasn't his best, there he was late in the game, darting through the Mexico defense and putting himself in a position to snatch a late winner. He missed the target, but he showed a willingness to keep plugging away, even on a night when the ball wasn't the U.S. team's friend.
There are other encouraging aspects as well. For all the gnashing of teeth over Jermaine Jones' inclusion in the U.S. side -- when healthy -- the underlying issue was that no player was really stepping up and making a manager, whoever it was, think about displacing Jones. That is now happening with the emergence of Kellyn Acosta.
No two players are alike of course, and it would be nigh impossible to replicate Jones' bite and ferocity in midfield, but Acosta complements Bradley well, providing mobility in the center of the park that helps share the defensive burden. It also frees Bradley up to attack the ball and jump into plays like the one that resulted in his wonder goal on Sunday. Acosta has yet to really impact the attacking end with his late runs like he does for FC Dallas, but that will come in time as his repetitions with the U.S. increase.
That isn't to say there isn't room for improvement. In the buildup to Mexico's goal, Acosta needed to find his inner Jones and resort to a tactical foul, but was nutmegged by Javier Hernandez instead. It was one of many dominos to fall on that sequence, but one that Acosta will need to learn from.
Darlington Nagbe is in a similar place to Acosta. He's finding ways to contribute more consistently, as evidenced by his performance against T&T. But a lapse in concentration on Sunday night allowed Javier Aquino to run unmarked at the back post, only to fan on a golden opportunity. That said, now at least players are challenging incumbents on a more consistent basis instead of the inertia that had come to characterize the U.S. squad for much of this cycle.
Of course, the job of qualifying for the World Cup is far from done. A difficult return match with Costa Rica looms on Sept. 1. That is followed by a trip to Honduras, never the easiest of venues, no matter the Catrachos' form. Arena is certainly taking no chances. While the team's European-based players left for deserved vacations, and MLS performers returned to their club teams, Arena will now prepare for the Gold Cup to see if any fringe members of the squad deserve a look with the full team. But the togetherness is clearly back.
"To leave with the bond that they've acquired over the last four games is very important," said Arena. "So the next time around, I'm optimistic that we can be better in the next two games of qualifying."
So now the U.S. is back on its feet with a clear head after sustaining a couple of early knockdowns. The next step in the next group of qualifiers is to stay there and continue to land some blows of its own.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.