Soccer, as the old cliche portends, is a results business.
That makes every year a referendum on those in charge of it. This will be especially true for the U.S. senior national team coaches in 2013.
Jurgen Klinsmann on the men's side and his newly-appointed women's national team counterpart Tom Sermanni each have a great deal to prove in this coming year.
In the summer of 2011, Klinsmann swept into office to see out the remainder of Bob Bradley's aborted 4-year World Cup cycle on a platform of hope and change. Yet he has delivered a mixed bag. Results have been confounding. World-beaters Italy and arch-enemy Mexico were slain on their own turf for the first time ever. The 9-2-3 U.S. record ties its best ever record. It posted the same record in 2008. Yet for all its success against soccer's superpowers, the U.S. had immense trouble getting results against lesser lights such as Jamaica, Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala, its opponents in the third phase of World Cup Qualifying.
To justify his $2.5 million annual salary, Klinsmann was to totally retool the U.S. national team and in so doing push the team into the world's elite.
"We have a bit of a different approach than before my time," Klinsmann said in a recent conference call. "It is a work in progress and a positive work in progress. One thing is the technical game on the field. We are improving the way we push the whole game into the opponent's half, keeping the ball, playing one-two touches fast and playing out of the back, and here and there putting high pressure on the opponents. This is a process that will take time. I'm pleased with the progress. I really think that we are developing a style that suits us and that the players are enjoying."
Yet the gap between what Klinsmann sees and what everybody else has observed is growing large. Many, myself included, only see a team that has regressed to a tepid impersonation of the U.S. of old.
If Klinsmann was to take the team from reactive and dreary to proactive and pretty, he has only produced an even more negative and mirthless side, possibly realizing why the Yanks had built their game around physicality and toughness all along - they're ill-suited to anything else. Where Bradley was criticized for fielding two holding midfielders, Klinsmann customarily inserts three into his lineup. And his team lacks the sharpness on the counterattack that his predecessor fostered.
In 2013, we should learn whether all his big ideas were just so much hot air, or whether he is truly capable of implementing his grand vision of remaking the way a vast nation plays.
World Cup qualifying begins in earnest on February 6, when the U.S. travels to Honduras to kick off the all-important hexagonal round, which will send three or four - pending a playoff with Oceania - of six entrants to Brazil following a double round-robin.
In July, the U.S. will play in and host the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament with little upside to the U.S. but plenty of scope for embarrassment. That's exactly what happened in the 2009 tournament, when the U.S. lost the final to Mexico 5-0 with a cobbled-together team in the middle of another World Cup qualifying campaign.
All these murky and treacherous waters Klinsmann will have to navigate, while convincing an increasingly skeptical American soccer scene - where the immense credit he brought into the job on the strength of his reinvention of Germany's national team is fast eroding - that he knows what he's doing.
Sermanni's mandate, meanwhile, is to keep the U.S. women among the world's elite, rather than to get them there. His predecessor Pia Sundhage - who left the job to take over her native Sweden - left some big shoes to fill, winning two Olympic gold medals.
Yet Sermanni's women also compete by the graces of their superior athleticism, mentality and organization. He understands full well that the rest of the world is closing the gap by developing technically. "The game is changing at a rapid pace," Sermanni said recently. "The quality and closeness of the teams is much more pronounced than in the 1990s and 2000s. I don't think you can just sit back and hope upon hope that the team is going to continue to be successful."
Clearly, there is some remodeling to be done. And while there are two and a half years yet to go until the next major tournament, the 2015 Women's World Cup, it is a task that needs tending to early. Yet the chemistry of this dynastic group has proved fragile in the past. Sundhage was a master, more than anything, at keeping the peace. Sermanni will have to accomplish the same while also easing it into a new mindset.
"You don't come into a team like this and make radical changes," he said upon his appointment. "That would be an unwise thing to do. But you do want to keep developing your team to play a better brand of soccer, to develop positive possession where the team is comfortable on the ball and patient. I think it's a reality in the modern-day game that you no longer win games on pure fitness. We need to strive to improve the U.S. team in that area."
That means solving various puzzles that Sundhage left unfinished. Like how to get more technical players like Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath onto the field without softening up defensively. Or finding a role for dynamic young forward Sydney Leroux alongside superstar strikers Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan without sacrificing too much in midfield.
Will Sermanni figure it out? Will Klinsmann? For both Europeans charged with the fortunes of American national teams, this will be a year where they will need to produce some answers.