As the bus carrying the U.S. national team rumbled from the loading docks at Rio Tinto Stadium, a fan waving a large American flag on a pole broke from a platoon of supporters and gave chase. He stayed close up a curvy hill, but before long, the motor coach was on its way into the warm Utah evening.
The team hotel in downtown Salt Lake City awaited the players for their final rest during a five-city, four time-zone, three-week odyssey.
In a broader sense, with another three points secure and an unobstructed view from atop CONCACAF’s standings, the U.S. assembly cruised toward a greater destination: Brazil.
The World Cup qualifying pursuit is not over. But really, it is.
With the right mix of results, the Americans could seal it Sept. 6 in Costa Rica. If not, the last step might come against Mexico four days later in Columbus. Make no mistake, though: Whether it happens in September or a month later, the United States will play in the World Cup for the seventh consecutive time.
Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Honduras was not an artistic gem. And it took 73 minutes to puncture the Catrachos’ resistance. But since losing their final-round opener in San Pedro Sula in February, a performance that raised questions about the direction under Juergen Klinsmann, the Americans have claimed 13 of a possible 15 points. The only “blemish” was a draw at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, where they’ve never won a qualifier.
They’ve taken care of business at home. They’ve recorded four shutouts in the past five qualifiers. They’ve refueled Jozy Altidore, who, in scoring in four straight matches for the first time in his career, has exorcised the demons of a 19-month scoring rut.
Klinsmann sees a team growing before his eyes.
“The team understands that it’s not only a physical grind that you’re going through in these games, it’s a mental one,” he said. “Mentally we’re getting stronger, we’re getting tougher. We are now prepared to go through those games.”
These three weeks produced a bundle of points and, after months of circulating rosters and lineups, revealed an identity.
Remember a few months ago when no one was really sure how Klinsmann wanted to play? It’s now clear:
Michael Bradley is the I-beam in a 4-2-3-1 design. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have strengthened their hold as first-choice center backs. Klinsmann wants Fabian Johnson attacking on the wing, whether as a defender or midfielder. He has faith in Graham Zusi supplying Altidore. He likes Jermaine Jones in the engine room with Bradley. He wants Clint Dempsey to play underneath Altidore. (And by handing Deuce the captain’s armband, he wants him to lead.) He values the versatility of DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Evans and Geoff Cameron.
Players will come and go, and come again. Heck, 10 are carrying yellow cards into the Costa Rica match Sept. 6, jeopardizing their eligibility for the Mexico showdown. (Things tend to get testy in San Jose.) The Gold Cup, with a B roster, should offer additional options heading into the fall.
The right back position is up for grabs, with Evans challenging Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo. Will Landon Donovan resurface this summer? And if so, where does he fit in — left side of midfield in front of Johnson? Have we seen the last of 2010 captain Carlos Bocanegra? Could Stuart Holden regain his old form? Who starts up top if Altidore is unavailable?
With the World Cup now in clear sight, Klinsmann has a year to figure out the rest.
(through 6 of 10 matchdays)
United States 4-1-1, 13 points
Costa Rica 3-1-2, 11 points
Mexico 1-0-5, 8 points
Honduras 2-3-1, 7 points
Panama 1-2-3, 6 points
Jamaica 0-4-2, 2 points
USA remaining schedule:
Sept. 6 at Costa Rica in San Jose
Sept. 10 vs. Mexico in Columbus, Ohio
Oct. 11 vs. Jamaica in Kansas City, Kan.
Oct. 15 at Panama in Panama City