MADRID (AP) – It's hard to predict what will happen with the USA men's national team these days. On paper, things look rosy: the U.S. sits on its best record of the modern era so far in 2012, going 9-2-2 for a .769 winning percentage as it heads to Krasnodar for its final game of the calendar year on Wednesday morning, a friendly with Russia, ranked ninth in the world.
But the truth is, we don't know a whole lot more about this team than we did going into the year.
Over the course of 2012, the Americans were erratic in their first slate of World Cup qualifiers. Tepid performances at home to wee Antigua and Barbuda (3-1) and away to Guatemala (1-1) and Jamaica (1-2) were followed by a scintillating first half at home against Jamaica (1-0). But then form receded again in belabored wins against Antigua and Barbuda away (2-1) and at home to Guatemala (3-1), a come-from-behind effort that clinched a spot in the hexagonal round.
They were just as unpredictable in friendlies. After closing out 2011 with a resounding loss to France - in the run of play, albeit not in the 0-1 score - and a fine 3-2 away win against Slovenia, this year's friendly schedule was highlighted by scrappy if unsightly first-ever away wins over Italy (1-0) and Mexico (1-0) and a 5-1 thumping of Scotland. But a 1-4 destruction at the hands of Brazil and a deflating 0-0 draw with Canada could hardly be overlooked.
The only thing the U.S. was consistent in was its inconsistency.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann proved just as fickle with his call-ups. In just 13 games, 45 players made an appearance. Only two players - Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones - started at least 75 per cent of games.
The squad brought to Russia will offer more of the same. Stalwarts Clint Dempsey and Steve Cherundolo were not called in. Neither was Landon Donovan, although the existential crisis he is mired in and his ongoing MLS playoff campaign with the Los Angeles Galaxy seemed to preclude him from partaking anyway. In their place, Jozy Altidore, omitted from the last two qualifiers, was recalled while prodigal son Timmy Chandler appears to have finally decided that he can't do any better than playing for the U.S. and returned to the fold. (It should be noted that Chandler will, once again, not be tied to the USA even if he plays this game due to FIFA's peculiar rules.) Young prospects Juan Agudelo, Mix Diskerud and Sean Johnson were brought back after long absences. Josh Gatt and Joe Gyau are in line to make their debuts.
The experimental selections speak to a team still very much in flux. Upon his appointment, Klinsmann promised to mold a unit that played "proactive" soccer and applied high pressure and quick transitions. But almost 16 months hence, we've mostly seen a team that has regressed to the old American mean of sitting behind the ball and counter-attacking. The longer Klinsmann has been in charge, in fact, the more his team has looked like the America of old. In fact, the traditional staples of a sound defense, double holding midfielders and marauding break-outs were most prominently on show in the defining wins of his era over Italy and Mexico.
The game against Russia will present a referendum on the U.S.'s preparedness for when World Cup Qualifying begins in earnest away to Honduras on Feb. 6. Now that it has entered the final stage of qualifying, little margin for error remains in a group with Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama and the aforementioned Hondurans , all of whom are well capable of beating the U.S.
"We ask for these games because they are big learning curves for us," said Klinsmann. "We need to measure ourselves against the best teams out there and build even more confidence. We want to close the year in a very positive way and then go into a busy 2013 that includes World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup and some exciting friendlies."
The U.S. has never beaten Russia in four attempts dating back to 1993, losing twice and tying twice. Nor did it ever beat the Soviet Union, for that matter, losing three of four. Fabio Capello has called in a strong squad to keep that streak alive. Although Russia will be without enigmatic Arsenal forward Andrei Arshavin, who is out of favor with his national side, it will prove solid through and through, trading on a strong midfield headlined by Alan Dzagoev, the sort of electric young playmaker the U.S. can still only dream of producing.
In order to finish off 2012 on a high, the stated objective, the U.S. will need to set another first. But in order to convince anybody that this team is equipped to handle the considerable challenges 2013 will pose, it will have to demonstrate a conviction of a discernible identity too, whether that of the past or the future.