Hosting the Copa America Centenario showcases how far the United States has come as a footballing nation. It wasn’t long ago when soccer was an afterthought in America: something kids played either until they were old enough to pick up a helmet and pads or during the months of the year when it isn’t basketball season.
Despite finishing third at the inaugural World Cup (at Uruguay 1930, a tournament without England, Germany and Italy), the USA qualified for only one World Cup between 1934 and 1990.
Those dark days are over now, in part because of the foundation laid in the 2000s by former coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, who were able to get decent production out of squads that were less talented than their opponents.
Jürgen Klinsmann, however, was supposed to be the man that would take the national team to the next level. Hired in 2011 by the United States Soccer Federation, the Americans have won 55.8 percent of matches in the German’s tenure, a figure that is currently worse than both Arena and Bradley. Yet, his inability to find consistency and his constant tinkering with the formation, in addition to his public dislike of national team players who choose to play for MLS clubs rather than move to Europe, has rubbed some US fans the wrong way and put Klinsmann on the hot seat.
Two years ago, the USA was coming down from a relative high at the World Cup in Brazil. Nobody expected them to come out of the ‘Group of Death’, which included Germany, Portugal and old nemesis Ghana. The USA almost reached the quarterfinals too, taking Belgium to extra time before losing 2-1.
Last summer started off brilliantly for the Americans too, with wins in friendlies over the Netherlands and Germany, and a run to the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal. It was that match against Jamaica where things started to unravel. Previously, most fans were willing to give Klinsi the benefit of the doubt, but this was a turning point after failing to win with a squad that has a quality far above their regional opponents.
A shock 2-1 loss was followed by defeat to Panama on penalties in the third place match at the Gold Cup, and the US missed out on qualifying for the 2017 Confederations Cup when they lost to Mexico at the Rose Bowl last October. In March, a 2-0 loss in a 2018 World Cup qualifier away to Guatemala was a major red flag, as it cast doubts over their chances of even making it to the 2018 tournament.
In the return leg, the Americans hammered Guatemala 4-0, and only have matches left against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago remaining before The Hex, so they will probably make it to the next stage. But with every loss, draw or even narrow win against the minnows they come up against the regional federation, the support for Klinsmann wanes further.
Klinsmann’s tactics, which employ Gyasi Zardes (a striker with the first touch of a walrus) on the wing, and refuse to protect the players of his team that are played out of position (like covering Fabian Johnson—a natural midfielder pigeonholed into left back—with Bobby Wood, another center forward playing on the wing) are seen by many as dysfunctional. These strikers, Zardes and Wood, offer relatively little outside compared to what traditional wingers bring to the table, like the ability to beat a man and whip in a dangerous cross. Klinsmann’s reluctance to drop Clint Dempsey to the bench is actively hurting his team, but he doesn’t seem to mind. The smiling man from Stuttgart is still doing his thing.
With the Copa America underway in the US this summer, it presented a major opportunity for Klinsmann to try to win back some of the supporters calling for his head. Playing against top South American opposition might have earned the USA some respect from the global footballing community as well.
That seems much less likely now, following Friday night’s disappointing 2-0 loss to Colombia in Santa Clara. Conceding early and struggling to find a way back into the match for many fans felt like more of the same.
Sitting in last place in Group A, a loss to Costa Rica on Tuesday means the United States would fail to progress to the knockout stage of the Copa. With all of the hype coming into this tournament, it would be a PR nightmare for US Soccer. Usually, those kind of disasters lead to coaching changes…
The truth is even a draw may not be good enough for Klinsmann, as Colombia could secure first place in the group with a win over Paraguay, leaving Los Cafeteros with nothing to play for this weekend against Costa Rica. Klinsmann called the Costa Rica game “a must-win match” in a press conference on Monday.
Los Ticos aren’t to be taken lightly either. Costa Rica won Group D at the 2014 World Cup, finishing ahead of Uruguay, Italy and England en route to a heartbreaking loss in the quarters to the Dutch on penalties. They may be missing Real Madrid stalwart keeper Keylor Navas, but Oscar Ramírez’s side still boasts proven studs Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell.
As if that weren’t concerning enough, Costa Rica was held to a draw by Paraguay in the opening group stage match, meaning they will need all three points against the USA, with a match against Colombia looming.
Jürgen Klinsmann may not be able to win back every US Soccer fan this tournament, as the window for that has certainly slammed shut at this point. But a win against Costa Rica is a step in the right direction. He probably doesn’t have a lot of time left as the national team manager; maybe he’ll even make it to Russia in 2018. Should the US suffer a complete embarrassment, in the two remaining Copa America group games, he may not last the rest of the month.
There isn’t a standout candidate out there who would replace Klinsmann at this point, which makes matters more difficult for USSF president Sunil Gulati. When Gulati hired Bob Bradley back in 2007, he originally wanted Klinsmann, but the German ended up going to Bayern Munich. Their friendship may make a parting of ways that much more difficult.