The hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. national team coach last year presented a conundrum for fans and journalists, that of weighing the short-term against the long-term.
The short-term sorts itself out by results, which to date have been great in friendlies – historic victories in Italy and Mexico despite a typical loss to Brazil – and lukewarm in competitive matches, though a victory Tuesday against Guatemala in the semifinal-round finale would produce a 4-1-1 record.
In its last two World Cup semifinal qualifying rounds, the USA has posted its best marks: 3-0-3 win-loss-tie (12 points) in the run-up to 2006 against Panama, Jamaica, and El Salvador. And 5-1-0 (15 points) when grouped with T&T, Guatemala, and Cuba prior to the 2010 event, with the loss to T&T coming after the USA had clinched passage to the final round.
A 4-1-1 record (13 points) would match that of the team that qualified for the 1998 World Cup in France after advancing out of a semifinal group that included Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Trinidad & Tobago. A tie would yield a 3-1-2 mark (11 points), the same record as in the 2002 preliminaries against Costa Rica, Guatemala and Barbados. In the latter competition, the Americans were scoreless for more than an hour against Barbados in the final match it had to win before breaking through with a 4-0 triumph.
Should the Americans lose Tuesday in Kansas City, they would finish with the fewest points, 10, of any semifinal round played under the current format. They could also miss out on qualifying for the Hexagonal, depending on what Jamaica does against Antigua & Barbuda. In that unlikely scenario, both the short-term and long-term under Klinsmann would be deemed a disaster, full stop.
Assuming the Americans advance, has Klinsmann been in charge long enough – nearly 15 months – to project an outlook for the long-term?
He’s been criticized for backtracking on his vow to craft a team on technique and possession; he’s hardly the first coach, or politician, to promise one thing only to implement another. The default response used by his predecessors regarding the rough-and-tumble nature of Concacaf has been uttered by him as well, and while that smacks of the same-old, same-old, it’s also true that most American players still lack the poise and polish to supersede bad conditions and iffy officiating in a competitive environment.
When Dexter Blackstock pulls down defender Clarence Goodson before tapping home an equalizer, as occurred Friday in the 25th minute, there’s not much to do except chalk it up as costly learning experience. Maybe Klinsmann foresaw what might happen when Landon Donovan is missing and Herculez Gomez and Clint Dempsey are struggling, as before the A&B game he stressed the aerial prowess of Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon as a main reason for their selection. That self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t satisfy a lot of critics, but it did produce a vital victory in dramatic fashion.
There’s a lot to like about a player with the good feet and vision of Geoff Cameron starting at centerback, but he will face much tougher forwards in the Hexagonal than he did in the semifinal round, so he needs to step up his game. So far, Klinsmann has used Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson more than Edgar Castillo, Jose Torres and Joe Corona; injuries have been a factor, yet does he shift that balance next year with more on the line and the World Cup drawing ever closer?
It’s also worth noting that the U.S. has finished atop its semifinal group each of the past four times, while Mexico – regarded as technically superior and with a better record overall in international competition – has managed that feat only once. But regardless of results, Klinsmann is dogged by the perception that his team doesn’t look all that different, or any better, than those that have preceded him.
Now the question is: How will the Americans approach a game in which a tie will be enough to advance? Can they duplicate the sharp, stylish effort that propelled them to a 1-0 lead against Jamaica in Columbus they nervously held to the final whistle? A roaring crowd at Livestrong Sporting Park notwithstanding, can they risk an aggressive approach against a skillful, opportunistic opponent while monitoring the situation with Jamaica, which needs to win by several goals to catch and pass either Guatemala or the USA in the standings if a tie is not their result?
The process of changing a team’s identity is a function of players as much as philosophy, and not for another year – if then – will there be a clear picture of a Klinsmann-led team. Still, on Tuesday he and his players face their trickiest test of his tenure.