What was shaping up as the most difficult spell of Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. manager ended on a considerable high. It began with reports of player unrest but finished with a win against Costa Rica in extreme weather conditions and a rare result in the Estadio Azteca against rival Mexico.
With two of the first three games on the road, four points is about what most observers would consider a respectable haul. The U.S. finds itself currently in third place in the hexagonal standings, trailing Costa Rica on goal difference and a point behind surprise leader Panama.
More importantly, there is a sense that the team is headed in the right direction again, with players such as L.A. Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City counterpart Matt Besler revealing -- not for the first time -- the willingness of U.S. manager Klinsmann to blood in young players in order to bring the program forward.
"We have a simple goal, which is qualifying for a World Cup," Klinsmann said after Wednesday's 0-0 draw with Mexico. "We want to improve this program one step at a time, which I think we are in the middle of it, and doing a very good job."
That the Americans relied upon grit and tenacity to get both results might strike some as a sign that the U.S. hasn't evolved much beyond the opportunistic style of teams past.
But the reliance in the past week on such traits wasn't necessarily a bad thing. As Klinsmann has attempted to move the team forward stylistically, it became evident that the collective mentality of the side had slipped, and with it a loss of identity. Whether this was down purely to the reported player dissatisfaction is up for debate, but the reality is that such attributes are inherent even in successful sides that operate on the high end of the technical spectrum.
The U.S. needs these attributes as much as it ever has. That these characteristics resurfaced against Costa Rica and Mexico is something for which the Americans need not apologize.
"For us to win big games, for us to compete at the highest level, those are things that always have to be there," midfielder Michael Bradley said about the team's mentality and commitment. "I think every guy who was a part of these two games can be proud of what went into it. The challenge now is that part can never come down a notch because that's what makes us who we are."
Yet there is every reason to expect improvement in other areas. On the defensive side Klinsmann appears for the most part to have the team moving forward while taking considerable risks with young personnel. Left unresolved is why the same progress hasn't happened on the attacking side of the ball. The fact that in the last two games the U.S. generated just three shots certainly gives Klinsmann pause, and it remains the German's biggest worry heading into the summer qualifiers.
Some of what was witnessed last week was situational. The weather conditions in the second half against Costa Rica placed a high emphasis on safety-first soccer, especially given the fact that the U.S. had a lead. And the Azteca has never been a venue where the U.S. has dominated possession, especially on the back half of a double-fixture date.
The fact remains that last week, even in moments when the Americans connected passes, they rarely looked dynamic or threatening. It points to a general shortage of game-changers in the U.S. player pool. This explains the consternation created by Landon Donovan's sabbatical, as well as the constant monitoring of Stuart Holden's comeback with Bolton Wanderers. When Clint Dempsey is short of match fitness, like he is at the moment, and with Michael Bradley being often tasked with bringing the ball out of the back, there just aren't many other creative options available.
So Klinsmann's search for a more dynamic attack continues. He showed signs in these last two games of taking a more adventurous stance by playing with a double pivot in midfield. This had the effect of getting more skill players on the field, and at least in the first half against Costa Rica the Americans got more numbers around the ball in advanced positions.
But against Mexico, the conundrum he faces was raised once again. When the U.S. attacking approach is beset by caution, the impulse to get players forward doesn't materialize. This is why over the years the U.S. has performed better with two strikers, but when Klinsmann has opted for that alignment he has mitigated it by flooding his midfield with players whose strengths lie on the defensive side of the ball.
Such developments leave Klinsmann with a host of questions heading into the summer qualifiers. Is now the time to take the same kind of personnel risks in attack that he has already done in defense? Is it time to give a veteran like Sacha Kljestan another look, or bring in a younger player like Joe Corona? Or are the possession-based passes of Jose Torres worth another look? And what of Donovan? Will he find his way back into the national team fold?
The last option is the one that would appear to provide the most upside to the team given Donovan's experience and ability. He is on record as saying he would welcome a return to the national side, putting the onus squarely on Klinsmann to make the next move. But reading the tea leaves, the idea of a Donovan comeback isn't something that fills Klinsmann with 100 percent enthusiasm.
All of this points to an attack whose progress will be uneven; impressive at times at home but unable to dictate terms on the road. The summer will bring an away qualifier against Jamaica followed by home dates with Panama and Honduras. The team's rediscovered mentality points to steady progress towards qualification. Improvement on the attacking front will guarantee it.