The stakes could not be much higher for the United States Men’s Soccer program on Tuesday when the full national team face Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio before the U23 squad take on Colombia in a winner take all Olympic qualification showdown in Frisco, Texas.
By all rights, Jurgen Klinsmann should be coaching for his job when the Americans attempt to reverse last Friday’s stunning loss to Guatemala but U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati appears set to continue to stand by his man.
Gulati has said more than once that the coach’s job status job is not decided by one result, but what else could he say given that he has signed Klinsmann as both Coach and Technical Director through the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
It is worth remembering that despite losing to Guatemala for the first time since 1988 and for the first time ever to Los Chapines in a World Cup Qualifier, the U.S. remain in a strong position to advance to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers (aka, the Hex), provided they beat Guatemala.
The formula is simple, beat Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago at home and St. Vincent and the Grenadines on the road, and it is on to the Hex.
As for the U23’s it’s win and they’re in, well not really. In the aggregate system, the overall winner is decided by the total score from both games. If after 180 minutes the sides are level, the away goals rule comes into play, with goals scored by the visitors counting as double.
A goalless draw would send the USA to Rio, a 1-1 draw would force extra time, but any other tie score would doom this U23 team to join the 2012 group as a U.S. soccer “Lost Generation.”
Clearly, the Olympics fall well behind the World Cup in the pecking order of the men’s game but the U.S. missed out in 2012 and Klinsmann has made qualifying for Rio a top priority.
Klinsmann hand picked Andi Herzog to lead this U23 side, just as he selected Caleb Porter last time around. If the Americans are to get past Colombia they will have to see a whole lot more of the ball Tuesday night in Frisco, Texas than they did against Los Cafeteros Friday night in Barranquilla.
Among the many criticisms leveled at Jurgen Klinsmann in these last dark months has been that the team seems to have lost the spirit and grit it was long known for, even as evidence of promised stylistic improvements, i.e. “proactive” soccer, has remained elusive.
At least, Herzog’s group scored on that front Friday night when they battled through the oppressive heat and humidity of Estadio Metropolitano Roberto Meléndez to earn a tie despite being badly outplayed by the home team.
That determination was welcome but the Americans know that something more will be required if a place in Rio is to be won. Herzog said as much to ussoccer.com. “It’s still close,” Klinsmann’s right-hand man said. “Finishing 1-1 with the away goal was huge for us. I saw my team with a great fighting spirit, but at home we have to do a better job in possession and we’ll have a chance to qualify.”
It won’t be do or die for the full side when it plays Guatemala in Columbus; win, lose, or draw the Americans will still be alive for the Hex when they travel to play St. Vincent and the Grenadines away on September 2, before returning home to face Trinidad and Tobago four days later.
Klinsmann has made two changes to the roster ahead of Tuesday, bringing in Graham Zusi and 17-year-old super prospect Christian Pulisic to replace Fabian Johnson (groin) and Matt Besler (concussion) who have both been sent home with injuries.
Neither of the injured players was available Friday but the U.S. had not lost to Guatemala in 21 games and there was more than enough talent on hand for the Americans to have continued its mastery over the Central American side.
If this all seems familiar, well it is. On October 10 the U.S. MNT played Mexico in the newly minted CONCACAF Cup for the right to participate in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. Klinsmann had marked advancing to the event as an important goal and after a brutal fourth place finish in the Gold Cup, this one off versus Mexico was the team’s last remaining route.
On that same day, Herzog’s charges went against Honduras in the CONCACAF Championship/Olympic Qualifiers with the winner advancing.
It was not a good day for the Americans. The U23 side was played off the pitch by Honduras, losing 2-0 while the senior squad would be greatly flattered by a 3-2 scoreline in an extra time loss to El Tri.
The 23’s rallied to beat Canada, earning this showdown with Colombia and may yet find themselves in Rio this August.
But where does the senior team stand? It is clear that the team has regressed badly since the 2014 World Cup to the point where the U.S. are behind not just Mexico but Costa Rica too in CONCACAF.
On the way to a fourth place finish at the Gold Cup the U.S. lost to Jamaica before being credited with a tie in the third-place game versus Panama. The Canaleros then went on to eliminate their hosts on penalty kicks. That was the second 1-1 draw of the tournament between the sides rendering any U.S. claims of superiority over Panama, or Jamaica for that matter, problematic.
A trip to the Olympics would be a positive step for a U.S. MNT program badly in need of something to cheer, but it is the full squad that bears the brunt of Super Tuesday’s expectations.
Since Paul Caliguri’s “shot heard round the world,” (well, around the then tiny world of U.S. soccer fandom) ended 40 years in the wilderness for American soccer the U.S. MNT has qualified for the World Cup seven consecutive times.
A win on Tuesday night could lessen the pressure on the team, on Klinsmann, and on Gulati, but with Copa America Centenario coming to the United States in June what sort of reaction would a tie or even a poor performance in a U.S. win prompt from the brass?
And what if the U.S. lose? A second consecutive loss to Guatemala just might be “one result” too many for even Klinsmann’s seemingly unshakable job security to withstand.