[USA-EL SALVADOR, THE AFTERMATH] If the USA's shocking elimination from Olympic qualifying doesn't put into question everything Jurgen Klinsmann has put in place in the last eight months, he better step forward and take responsibility for the direction of the national team program. He has certainly laid out lofty goals for U.S. soccer, and more power to him. He'll need, though, to assure everyone that this is a long-term process and there is no turning back.
The cornerstone of the Klinsmann regime has been the development of an attacking style with a 4-3-3 formation emphasized on the age-group teams throughout the national team program. But as we discovered in Nashville, the U-23s didn't have the players to play that way, and it was suicide.
Forget the problems with the goalkeeping, the two center backs were shaky, and the central midfielders could not hold the ball, destroying the USA's possession game and making it vulnerable to counterattacks. The 4-3-3 puts a lot of emphasis on wing play, but the outside backs were unwilling or unable to attack, and the wing play from the team's two most senior players, Freddy Adu and Brek Shea, wasn't good enough.
Four years ago, the USA beat Canada, 3-0, in Nashville to earn its ticket to the Beijing Olympics. That victory came after the USA eked out 1-0 wins over Panama and Honduras after tying Cuba, 1-1, in group play. Performances hardly worth remembering.
The irony, of course, is that Klinsmann has taken a more cautious approach to how he deploys the senior national team in the eight months since he took charge. His surrogate, Caleb Porter, had only five days and no chance to put on the brakes.
More thoughts on USA-El Salvador and its aftermath ...
AGONY OF DEFEAT.Even a day later, the USA's exit is hard to swallow. Not that the USA is out -- the signs of trouble, big trouble, were there from about the 25-minute mark of the Canada game -- but how it all went down. Every time you watch the replay of Jaime Alas' tying goal it gets worse. Moses could not have parted the Red Sea any better than the USA allowed Alas to break free and launch the shot -- "the shot didn't have much power," his coach, Mauricio Alfaro, said -- that beat Sean Johnson. The hardest scene to watch is Johnson walking off the field, Bill Hamid, the goalie he had replaced, limping alongside him. The agony of defeat encapsulated in an instant.
HOME-FIELD DISADVANTAGE.For about the 827th time, playing on home soil was not an advantage to the USA. All you had to do was listen to the crowd for the decisive USA-El Salvador game on Monday night. La Selecta supporters might not have outnumbered U.S. fans, but they certainly made their presence felt. How could so many Salvadorans find their way to Nashville? The same way Tico fans descended on tiny El Camino College Stadium near Los Angeles for Costa Rica's 1-0 win that knocked the USA out of the 1986 World Cup. (Talk about the Dark Ages!). Or how Honduran fans filled 50,000-seat RFK Stadium in Washington to watch the Catrachos beat the USA, 3-2, in 2002 World Cup qualifying 10 days before the 9/11 attacks.
One of the great stories from the early days of the national team program as we know it concerns a 1990 World Cup qualifier between the USA and Guatemala played in New Britain, Conn. National team games weren't a big operation in those days. No more than a few thousand fans were initially expected, so ticket sales were handled by the local soccer association, whose secretary was startled one Saturday morning to discover that her front lawn was filled with Guatemalans. They had somehow gotten her address and driven from across the Northeast in search of tickets. The lesson then is the lesson now: Never assume a Concacaf match will be a home game for the USA.
FULL CIRCLE.With its ouster to Canada and El Salvador, the U.S. national team program has come full circle. It was 25 years ago that the national team program took off with wins over Canada and El Salvador in 1988 Olympic qualifying. Canada was coming off its first (and only) appearance at the World Cup and took a 2-0 lead to St. Louis for the second leg of the semifinal round of Olympic qualifying, but Lothar Osiander's boys rallied to win 3-0. This was a year before the USA was awarded the 1994 World Cup, and the national team program, little that it was, might have been disbanded if the USA had not rallied at the Soccer Park.
The USA moved into the final round of qualifying, where it faced El Salvador in its first game on the road. Hugo Perez had two goals, Brent Goulet and Frank Klopas each had a goal, and the USA won, 4-2. Soccer America reported of players returning home to tell stories of disgusted fans lighting seat cushions and throwing them from the upper deck of the Estadio Cuscatlan. It was their baptism of fire to soccer in Concacaf, but they were on the road to the 1988 Seoul Olympics. And soon thereafter to Italia '90. The national team had taken off.
EPIC COLLAPSES.It is hard to remember a more total collapse than the USA's elimination on Monday night. Perhaps the most famous of the last 20 years was France's failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. The Bleus went into their last two games at home against Israel and Bulgaria needing only one point to clinch their ticket to the finals in the United States.
Ahead 2-1 with 10 minutes to play against Israel, which it had beaten 4-0 away, France lost, 3-2. Two months later, France got a second shot at the elusive point and was tied 1-1 with Bulgaria when Emil Kostadinov scored a last-gasp goal much the way Alas scored against the USA.
Goalie Bernard Lama had no chance on Kostadinov's shot that sent Bulgaria, not France, through to the finals. The goat at the Parc des Princes was David Ginola, who failed to kill off the game. France had a free kick deep in the Bulgaria half. The referee had his whistle in his mouth. But instead of holding the ball, Ginola launched a cross into the area, and the Bulgarians raced off on their winning counterattack.
Bad blood lingers to this day. Only four months ago, Ginola sued then-French coach Gerard Houllierfor writing in his new book that Ginola was to blame for the loss.
LOOKING AHEAD. I don't want to sound like a doomsayer, but if you thought the reaction to Monday's exit was bad, imagine what will happen if the USA doesn't qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The last exit came in 1985 when the USA, needing only a tie to advance to the final round of Concacaf qualifying, fell to Costa Rica 1-0 in Torrance. U.S. Soccer was insolvent. The NASL had collapsed. Indoor soccer was all there was. No one cared.
Only one berth was up for grabs from Concacaf for the 1986 World Cup. Mexico already qualified as host, and the tournament consisted of only 24 teams. Concacaf will have 3.5 spots at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Besides Mexico, the USA's competition should include Honduras, which went to the 2010 World Cup, Costa Rica, which went to the two finals before that, Panama, which beat the USA at the 2011 Gold Cup, and Jamaica, the best of the Caribbean teams. But El Salvador in particular could challenge Costa Rica behind Mexico in their semifinal group, as could Canada against Honduras and Panama.
Qualification for Brazil 2014 is no sure thing.