In the midst of everything else going on America over the past week, the U.S. Men’s National Team opened up the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with games against Mexico and Costa Rica. As two of the best teams in CONCACAF, this was a tough way to open World Cup qualifying, but you have to figure that the USMNT is coming in ready to make a statement. At best, they’d capture 6 points after two statement wins. Maybe they’d go 1-1 and walk away with 3 points. At worst, maybe they’d draw both matches and get just 2 points.
But instead the USMNT finds themselves at the bottom of the group after two devastating losses.
While the team played well in the second half of a 2-1 defeat to Mexico, that was overshadowed by some very public drama, including a dispute between captain Michael Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann over the team’s formation. The team’s defense also gave up a late goal to our biggest rivals, at home. This marks the first time the USMNT has lost a qualifying match at home in 15 years. Rough start.
The 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, however, was just plain humiliating. What was most frustrating about this match was the qualities that the USMNT is known for—heart, fearlessness, and indefatigable desire—were just not there. After Costa Rica’s second goal, I was optimistic that the team would fight back like it always does. Instead, more shambolic defending led to two more embarrassingly easy goals for Costa Rica. After the match, U.S. soccer fans and pundits exploded with rage on the internet, TV, and social media wondering where we go from here.
In many ways the past five days are emblematic of the worst parts of the Klinsmann era: a series of baffling tactical and personnel decisions leading to humiliating losses.
Since July 2015, this includes a loss to Jamaica in Gold Cup Semifinals, a 4-0 loss to Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier, and Tuesday’s 4-0 shellacking against Costa Rica. This most recent setback has re-ignited the #FireKlinsmann movement across social media and amongst a growing number of analysts and writers.
Yet, Klinsmann seems to be at his best when his back is against the wall. Let’s not forget the USMNT surprised many by surviving the Group of Death in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And when Klinsmann’s job was in jeopardy last summer, he responded by predicting that the USA would make it to the Copa America Semi-Finals, where the team did just that.
Conversely, the current situation sounds eerily similar to the end of his ill fated tenure at Bayern Munich, where he publicly lost the dressing room and was fired before the season ended.
International soccer is fucking hard. Qualification for a major tournament is a long and difficult slog. Just ask Mexico, who would not have qualified for the 2014 World Cup if the U.S. didn’t take a meaningless game seriously and beat Panama in the final qualifier. But once you step on that big stage, all bets are off.
In both 2014 and 2010, the past two World Cup champions (Spain and Italy) did not make it out of their respective groups. This past summer, the French lost to a Ronaldo-less Portugal with home field advantage in the final of Euro 2016. And the 5- time world champion Brazil didn’t make it to the KO rounds of the Copa America Centenario. Minus the Jamaica loss in the Gold Cup, our major tournament record has been pretty solid under Klinsmann, an area for which he doesn’t get enough credit.
Our success has not only raised expectations for the USMNT but also interest and support behind soccer in the United States. We get up at 4:30 A.M. on weekends to watch our players in Europe. MLS recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, and the league has become stronger, attracting international stars before they sunset their careers. We have a passionate legion of supporters,who follow the USA wherever they will go, bringing a cauldron of noise with them.
That said, Americans are used to dominating international athletic competitions, so, our fans have high expectations for our side. This only makes it all the more frustrating that after seemingly every time we think the national team might be ready to surprise the soccer elite, the team puts on an insipid performance, resulting in an unthinkable loss. One leap forward, two steps back. This lack of consistency in the team’s performances is where Klinsmann gets the bulk of my (and many other supporters’) criticism.
Yet when his seat is hottest, Klinsmann seems to find a way to succeed. Despite the fact that the media is currently writing his obituary, I think he can and will right the ship. The only question is, will he get the chance?
While things need to change on a managerial level, the players also need to take a hard look in the mirror. As new, younger, and more spry players take the pitch, the team is experiencing a somewhat transitional time right now, but the fight and effort that has come to define U.S. Soccer has been noticeably absent. Leaders of past USMNT such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and DaMarcus Beasley are either gone or their powers are fading. These guys grabbed games by the scruff of the neck, gave 110 percent for their country, kept the U.S. in games where we were outmatched, and often times willed us to victory. It’s now time for the next generation, time for guys like Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, and Jozy Altidore to step up and be heard.
As fans, we shouldn’t panic (yet), but now there is no margin for error. The team’s three hardest games in the group were always going to be facing Mexico and Costa Rica. Of those three, only the away match at Mexico remains.
The USMNT will move to an easier stretch in its schedule, playing Trinidad & Tobago, Panama, and Honduras six times over the final eight games of qualifying. A quick glance at previous qualification tables shows us that 15-18 points should be enough for the top three and automatic qualification for Russia, while anywhere from 12-15 points should be enough for a berth in an intercontinental playoff against a team from Asia. And sitting at the bottom of the table with 0 points, the team has work to do.
The pressure will be massive when the USMNT takes the field against Honduras in late March. While you don’t want to think about the possibility of not qualifying for the World Cup, more subpar results like this, and it becomes a real possibility. Yet, more than any team I support, I am confident of this team’s ability to rise to the occasion once again and make it to Russia in 2018.