Okay, USA, this is what is needed to prove progress has been made.
Yes, it's "only" the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and the opponent for the next two games, Jamaica, has reached the finals only once, in 1998. and it must be said that aside from Theodore Whitmore -- the midfield orchestrator 14 years ago, the head coach today -- the times have certainly changed.
Historic road wins over Italy (in February) and Mexico (last month) are to be saluted and savored, yet despite the caliber of opposition and setting, neither brimmed with the intensity of the match Friday in Kingston and Tuesday in Columbus. Two wins would assure qualification, a win and tie will most likely suffice.
This is the proper test for what American administrators and coaches have sought for decades: an ideal blend of depth and determination. Seldom have the Americans lacked the latter; the former has been more problematic. Finding just one consistently reliable forward, for example, has plagued the U.S. program for years, and while that search still continues, the viable candidates do offer some encouragement that a suitable core could be in the making.
Compensating for the injury absences of Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley will require every player to shoulder a bit more of the burden, and if limited competitive activity for Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey the past few months limits their influence, there will be more pressure on the Americans. Yet these factors can also bring a valuable byproduct; infusing the team with replacements who can be counted on, and some day taking over those starting roles temporarily vacated.
Depth doesn't mean filling out the XI and hoping (or praying) for the best, depth refers to making such switches with little or no dropoff in performance, regardless of how the absences might change the formation or tactics. In every match, a team tries to play to its strengths and neutralize those of the opposition. During qualifying campaign, injuries and suspensions and poor form -- along with strategy -- will necessitate lineup changes. Are those moves stopgap measures or wise choices of players confident and ready to jump in?
To do so requires recognition of and reaction to patterns of play, along with the required physical demands. Everyone on the current U.S. roster, and perhaps a dozen others, are capable of playing international soccer. But against fast, rugged opponents, in a packed stadium buzzing with a boisterous crowd, can they steel their nerves, match Jamaica's fervor, and get the job done? If a few of the replacements get banged up and can't answer the bell Tuesday, is there someone to step in for them without the team muddling through a nervous, disjointed performance?
Since he was hired in late July of 2011, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been nurturing a new wave of players, though most of the veterans he inherited from Bob Bradley are still on the scene.
In 2014, it will be known who has taken over for, say, Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, in the starting lineup, but by then it will also be much clearer how deep the pool has become, and whether the squad of 23 reveals options and choices the 2010 team did not have.
That on-going process can be examined for 90 minutes on Friday and again next week.