Written by Matt Darlow, 2013
Updated by Franny Brancati & James Pierpoint, March 3 2015
For the United States Men’s National Team (UMSNT), the four years leading up to the 2014 World Cup were quite a roller-coaster ride. Both collectively and individually, the USMNT reached unbelievable highs and unspeakable lows. In the end, the USMNT did exactly what was expected of them—qualifying for Brazil 2014 and having an impressive but not incredible run. Now that the World Cup is over and the USMNT enters another qualifying cycle full of new challenges, it is important to reflect on how the USMNT overcame numerous trials and tribulations to arguably become the greatest USMNT ever assembled, as Klinsmann guides his team into a new and very different qualifying campaign.
Following an agonizing overtime defeat to Ghana in their Round of 16 match, the U.S., led by coach Bob Bradley, looked to rebound and regain form in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup Qualifying Cycle. However, all the hopes and dreams created by the USMNT’s stunning run during South Africa 2010 quickly came crashing down as disappointing result followed disappointing result. The 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament held every two years to crown a regional champion, was intended to be the USMNT’s opportunity to shine once again.
“We have said since the start of the new cycle that winning the Gold Cup this year is a top priority, and that was our focus as we built this roster. We have a very experienced group, and we know that in a tournament like this all 23 players will need to contribute in order for us to be successful.”—USMNT head coach Bob Bradley on the 2011 Gold Cup
While at times the tournament proved unexpectedly difficult for the Americans, characterized by their lack of scoring prowess and first ever defeat to Panama, they nevertheless found themselves in a familiar position, in the final against arch-rival Mexico. What transpired over the first 25 minutes of the match was a thing of beauty—the U.S. raced to a 2-0 lead thanks to two of its most influential players, Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan. However, the next 65 minutes was an utter and complete disaster. Mexico would go on to score four unanswered goals and win the tournament, subsequently sending the USMNT in a downward spiral. Following the loss, long-time head coach Bob Bradley was relieved of his duties as coach. The USMNT had hit rock bottom. Luckily, the only place to go, was up.
A New Hope
On July 29, 2011, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced that former stand-out player and coach for the German national team, Jurgen Klinsmann, had been hired to become the new USMNT coach. What followed was a whirlwind of craze and excitement—the USMNT had got their man. Klinsmann was expected to revive a flailing U.S. program and elevate it to new and unprecedented heights, defined by attractive, attacking soccer. Things are a lot easier said than done, something that Klinsmann soon found out. 
In his first six games in charge, the UMSNT lost four games, winning one, and drawing one. For his abysmal start, Klinsmann faced criticism regarding his decisions and strategies that failed to produce satisfactory results. Where was this knight-in-shining armor that had been promised to USMNT fans? Wasn’t the USMNT supposed to be getting better—not worse—under Klinsmann’s direction? Yet failure and disappointment were quickly replaced with optimism and celebration as the USMNT won five consecutive matches, including it’s first-ever victory against world powerhouse Italy. Times were changing; the USMNT was becoming globally relevant thanks to the successful play of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, and Jozy Altidore. This team was on a roll.
Hits and Misses
As the third round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualification began, the USMNT once again found themselves struggling. What was supposed to be a cake-walk against Jamaica, Guatemala, and Antigua and Barbuda, almost became a historic collapse for the UMSNT. An uninspiring victory against Antigua and Barbuda was followed by an equally drab tie to Guatemala. Where was the team that had defeated Italy on their home turf? Perhaps it was Klinsmann’s constant tinkering and alterations that was bringing the team down. After all, up until that point, Klinsmann had never once fielded the same starting 11.
Klinsmann’s critics were temporarily silenced following the USMNT’s friendly win against Mexico at the famous Estadio Azteca in August 2012. However, this momentous victory did not translate to World Cup qualification, as the USMNT fell to Jamaica. While the USMNT did get the better of Jamaica in the return leg, the USMNT qualification to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, or the Hexagonal, was still not assured. It took a 90th minute winner from journeyman Eddie Johnson against Antigua and Barbuda and a come-from-behind victory in front of a raucous crowd in Kansas City against Guatemala, to secure the USMNT’s Hexagonal spot. Unfortunately, all the USMNT’s momentum and confidence from its historic wins against Italy and Mexico had vanished. 
From Bad to Worse
Prior to the first match of the Hexagonal in February 2012, Landon Donovan, the USMNT’s talisman, announced that he was taking a sabbatical from soccer. Although Donovan had not been heavily relied on by Klinsmann up until that point, the loss of the USMNT’s star player still sent shockwaves through the ranks. Donovan’s departure, followed by the USMNT’s disaster in Honduras during the opening round of the Hexagonal, were causes for concern.  Things only went downhill from there when Sporting News’ Brian Straus published an article reporting USMNT players questioning and criticizing Klinsmann’s methods, leadership and acumen. The piece was filled with anonymous quotes from USMNT players and made apparent the lack of unity amongst the players. USMNT morale was at an all-time low.
Despite the obstacles that they faced, the USMNT was able to pull itself up by its bootstraps and rally against Costa Rica in a game that would have rivaled the Ice Bowl. Facing a staunch Costa Rican defense and a blizzard, the USMNT was able to record its first victory in the Hexagonal.
Four days later, the USMNT faced Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. Up until that point, the USMNT had only defeated Mexico at the famous Azteca Stadium once. Yet once again, the USMNT was able to rally together to earn a draw. It appeared as though the USMNT had been able to navigate these harsh seas and right the ship. Following the March qualifiers, the U.S. was rolling once more. A friendly victory over Germany and three consecutive Hexagonal wins over the likes of Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras had raised the team morale and confidence to levels they had not been at in over a year. This USMNT run of form continued as the USMNT “B” squad handily defeated all challengers in the 2013 Gold Cup, including Mexico. Furthermore, Landon Donovan had returned to the team and performed spectacularly in the Gold Cup—culminating in winning the Golden Ball of the Gold Cup as the tournament’s most valuable player. An impressive away win against Bosnia and Herzegovina was followed by a sound defeat at the hands of Costa Rica. Yet, this team would not and could not be stopped. The USMNT’s ticket to Brazil 2014 was punched when the U.S., in classic “Dos a cero” fashion, defeated arch-rival Mexico. Subsequent wins over Jamaica and Panama were the icing on the cake. The U.S. was going to the World Cup. 
What had transpired over the past year for the USMNT was something that only Disney himself could have imagined. The USMNT had been without its leaders, deprived of confidence, and divided. Somehow, they were able to turn their fortunes around and qualify for Brazil 2014 while simultaneously recording a 12-game win streak, the second-longest of all time. This team was for real. 
The best USMNT goals of 2012-13.
This World Cup Qualifying Cycle was a battle to say the least for the USMNT. They faced a coaching change, numerous injuries, the temporary departure of their star player, and internal strife. However, the USMNT was able to overcome all of these trials and tribulations to successful qualify for Brazil 2014 in style.
Looking back at how the U.S. qualified and forward at the projected starting XI, it was clear the U.S. would have to face a difficult fight in the World Cup. Furthermore, after of the Dec. 6 World Cup Group Draw, in which the US was placed into the same group as Germany (2nd overall in FIFA World Rankings as of Oct. 17), Portugal (ranked 14th), and Ghana (23rd), the USMNT chances of reaching the Round of 16 had taken a serious hit. Considered to be the “Dreadful Group of Death” the USMNT must not only be prepared to play against Klinsmann’s former team, arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, and the country that has eliminated the U.S. in the past two World Cups, but also the worst travel schedule of any World Cup team . Taking all of this into consideration, it might have been safe to say that the USMNT’s time in Brazil would be short-lived. However, after a World Cup cycle like the USMNT had, fans knew that if there was any team that could battle it’s way into the Round of 16, it was this particular USMNT.
How to cite this page: “The Road Less Traveled — The USMNT Journey to World Cup 2014,” Written by Matt Darlow (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-2014/the-road-less-traveled-the-usmnt-journey-to-world-cup-2014/ (accessed on (date)).