SALT LAKE CITY -- It seems almost unthinkable at the moment, but the U.S. national team very nearly did not even qualify for the Hexagonal.
Back in the fall, as angst over the lack of progress under Jurgen Klinsmann reached a crescendo, the United States faced Guatemala in the final match of the semifinal round of qualification. With the team needing a result to advance to the Hex, Carlos Ruiz gave the Guatemalans an early 1-0 lead.
Just about nine months later, and things are just a tad bit more rosy. The U.S., of course, came back to win the Guatemala match and advance to the Hexagonal. Now, following an opening-match loss to Honduras, the Yanks are on top of the group after three wins and a draw in their next four games.
Where did the turnaround begin?
"I think the Colorado trip and then the Mexico trip was big," defender Matt Besler told reporters. "The team kind of came together."
The squad was in crisis before facing Costa Rica in Denver, as a bombshell Sporting News article made it appear that a mutiny could be on the horizon. In a roaring blizzard though, the team banded together and grabbed a vital 1-0 win. Just four days later, the United States earned a precious point in the Azteca Stadium, drawing Mexico 0-0.
"We got four points out of those two games and the confidence grew in that trip. I guess we just really starting coming together and believing in each other," Besler said.
Though the USA got two good results during that March stretch, there were still major questions about the team's offense, which generated just four total shots over the two games.
When the team reconvened in May, it dropped a friendly against Belgium before facing Germany in one final friendly ahead of three Hexagonal matches. There, the Yanks rediscovered their offensive mojo: Jozy Altidore scored his first goal for the team since November 2011 in a 4-3 win.
Altidore has now scored in three consecutive games.
"Coming off a performance that wasn't up to your team's standards, you want to put in a good performance," Brad Evans said of the Germany match. "I think guys came out hungry, and it was good finishing, good ball movement. It was good to get a good game under your belt against a great opponent going into these games."
The momentum culminated with a win over Jamaica, followed by a resounding 2-0 win against Panama last Tuesday in Seattle. That particular match featured the kind of proactive, pressing, dominating style that Klinsmann had been promising ever since his tenure began in the summer of 2011.
For goalkeeper Tim Howard, though, the USA's progress under Klinsmann has been a steady build, not something that can be measured by one or two turning points.
"In a movie-like setting, you always want to find that one moment, but it's not. It's a collection of small moments," the Everton man told reporters. "It's one goal here, a lucky break there. It's a grind."
As the United States gears up to face Honduras on Tuesday, Howard knows that another turning point could be just 90 minutes away.
"It ebbs and flows," Howard said. "Just a couple weeks ago it was doom and gloom and now things are rosy, so it fluctuates like that. You just have to ride that roller-coaster."