A rambunctious year for the United States men's national team ended with a sigh, and then a whimper. After the USA's utterly flat performance in a 0-0 draw in Scotland on Friday, they closed out 2013 with a dreary 1-0 away loss to Austria. And if the overall record for the year remains a best-ever 16 wins, four losses and three ties, with a record 12-game winning streak recorded, the Gold Cup reclaimed and World Cup qualification achieved in fairly straightforward fashion, these were deflating performances.
It's hard to say what, exactly, the point of the U.S.'s end-of-year European tour was. In the Scots and the Austrians, the Americans had hardly booked world-beaters. Neither team has qualified for a World Cup since 1998.
They were not opponents like Italy or Bosnia or Germany, victories over whom somewhat shifted the paradigm of American soccer and the definition of reasonable expectations. Nor were they adversaries similar in style or makeup to upcoming World Cup opponents, since the draw has not yet taken place and the countries the U.S. will form a group with not yet known.
They surely weren't the best available opponents. So the choice for a pair of lesser challenges in front of half-empty stadiums can surely only have come about on account of two possible explanations. One: a desire to test some younger players on the bubble for World Cup inclusion in games in which they'd get more time on the ball. Or two: to bolster spirits with some resounding wins as the U.S. faces a four-month layoff until the next full international window, the last one before World Cup camps assemble in late May. Maybe Klinsmann hoped to do both.
In the end, neither was accomplished. We won't bore you by reciting the minutiae of the goings-on in Glasgow on Friday, but suffice it to say that very few Americans emerged from that game in better standing than they had entered it. And the 0-0 outcome unloosed no emotion of any sort.
On Tuesday, a 1-0 loss to a team that has been internationally irrelevant for a decade and a half will hardly have left a pleasing taste in the American mouths. Especially since the run of play didn't entitle the U.S. to a much better result.
Austria produced several good early looks, coaxing defensive interventions from John Brooks and Michael Bradley. Only then did the U.S. wake up. Jozy Altidore carved open a little room to shoot and dragged his effort wide. Aron Johannsson sizzled a shot straight at Robert Almer from afar. And Geoff Cameron seemed to nod his header - or did it come off Marko Arnautovic's fist? - into Austria's goal, but Almer's apparent behind-the-line save prevented the tally, in the eyes of the referee at least.
But that brief barrage of chances, compressed into a period from the 14th through the 17th minute, was more or less all the Americans would muster by way of offense, save for a few more Altidore attempts in the second half. They tried, but they didn't accomplish much.
And so, picking over the carcass of a forgettable game, precious little meat remains on the bone. Among the lean scraps was a laudable performance from Geoff Cameron, deployed at the problem position of right back, ahead of the long-ostracized - and now surely written-off - Eric Lichaj. Other than that, the more notable performances came from the usual suspects, Bradley and Altidore.
Brek Shea, one of the few standouts against Scotland, was largely anonymous out on the left, failing to exert much influence on the game. Beside him, playing as the withdrawn forward, Aron Johannsson made a very tentative start to the game, before settling in somewhat. Brooks, meanwhile, was culpable on Austria's 33rd-minute winner, both whiffing on his clearance of the low cross and losing striker Marc Janko, who smacked the ball past the helpless Tim Howard.
Substitutes Sacha Kljestan, Mix Diskerud and Eddie Johnson, solid backups all, made more of an impression, and injected the American effort with some poise. But neither was able to put a first November goal on the ledger.
And so the Americans stalked off defeated, ending their best year ever, and entering a World Cup year, on a decided down note.