By Ridge Mahoney
Two games and two depressing defeats into the Hexagonal, the USA is still in a good position to
qualify for Russia 2018.
And therein lies the problem, and the problem is not the Concacaf allotment of three automatic qualifiers plus a playoff spot. The problem is that the Americans,
while not as good as the 2002 players who reached the World Cup quarterfinals, are genuinely talented, somewhat experienced, and reasonably competent. They are certainly good enough to qualify and
probably scratch out a few points in Russia. In other words, more of the same.
The problem is that under Jurgen Klinsmann there has been no progress, no bonafide steps forward
towards the proactive, possession-oriented, transformational fleet of players he supposedly set out to find and curate five years ago. Yes, it’s great to have young players like Julian
Green and Bobby Wood and Christian Pulisic in the European pipeline and they will most likely be key components of the team for the next decade.
But progress is measured
in true advancement of the nuances and subtleties as well as an overall impression. The USA is no more deceptive in its combination play and its tactical acumen has not grown. How to use time and
space and angles in different parts of the field can be instilled through instruction and repetition. National teams like Iceland and club teams such as Leicester City are greater than the sum of
their parts because of team cohesiveness and coaching inspiration, and through application of sound principles can compete with and sometimes beat opponents imbued with more skill.
Whatever it is that makes a team better than it “should” be, the USA is lacking.
Is this due to some of its most experienced players – Michael Bradley, Clint
Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Jozy Altidore – forsaking the harsh European game for the more forgiving fields of MLS, or are they victimized by a coach bereft of ways to challenge
and prepare men who’ve been around the block a few times?
Klinsmann speaks of younger players coming through to push the veterans, but that is not progress. It is change, and in a
national team -- like in a business or an industry or a family -- change is inevitable, a byproduct of time. Players age and are replaced (unless you are Jones or Kyle Beckerman, apparently).
It is the natural order of things.
Progress is improvement, an inexorable process of enhancement and refinement. It is not always slow and steady, and up the ziggurat missteps and
stumbles are inevitable, but the periods of stagnation are followed by restarts and reboots that start the process in motion again.
One can argue that advancing out of a tough group at
the 2014 World Cup showed progress but in that tournament the Americans played a typically American game: hang tough defensively, battle for every ball, and score opportunistic goals. Same as it ever
Qualifying for a seventh straight World Cup is a notable accomplishment. It is not progress. In the two-plus years since that tournament the competitive record is poor: loss to
Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup semifinals and subsequent loss to Mexico in the Concacaf Cup.
In a one-off tournament, the Copa America Centenario played on home soil, the Americans achieved
Klinsmann’s objective by reaching the semifinals by beating two South American teams as well as Costa Rica. It’s a notable accomplishment.
But this year it has also been
beaten in Guatemala, 2-0, in a World Cup qualifier, lost again to Mexico, 2-1, last Friday in Columbus, and on Tuesday embarrassed by Costa Rica, 4-0, the same scoreline and opponent the USA defeated
at the Centenario.
Vis-à-vis Costa Rica, that’s an eight-goal swing, and yes the Americans were missing a few players through injuries, but three of Costa Rica’s
regular defensive starters were out as well. For the USA, only Geoff Cameron was missing from the back line that leaked chances and eventually goals. Where’s the progress?
One or two regional rivals are heading in the right direction. Panama has yet to qualify for a World Cup but since it stunned the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup group phase it has grown stronger and
tougher to beat. Coaches and players have come and gone and the process has continued. Limited resources and a small player pool notwithstanding, Panama is the most formidable it has ever been as a
soccer nation. It started off the Hexagonal by beating Honduras away and tying Mexico at home, which the USA failed to accomplish.
Costa Rica also seems to trending upwards. After failing
to get out of its Centenario group, it rolled to five straight wins in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying -- the same stage of that 2-0 USA defeat in Guatemala City -- and prior to trouncing
the USA posted a 2-0 qualifying victory over Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain.
Against Mexico, the Americans battled back from a sluggish start but were lucky to be down just one
goal instead of two or three before they tied it up, only to lose in the 89th minute. No defeat is more bitter than what occurred Friday in Columbus -- the sight of a Rafa Marquez header
floating into the far top corner is seared forever into the mind -- but the Americans vowed to redeem themselves in Estadio Nacional.
Instead, they stunk it up individually and
collectively. John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Bradley and Jones were especially bad, Altidore blew his cool midway through the second half to earn a caution, and even the effervescent
Christian Pulisic couldn’t put on the dazzle.
They can’t blame the formation this time; they stumbled and bumbled in the tried and true 4-4-2. Passes went astray, marks
weren’t picked up, traps were flubbed, and for most of the match they looked like Sunday players who had shown up at the wrong field but were persuaded to give it a go. This wasn’t just a
bad game, it was what former coach Bora Milutinovic would call a "catastroph." Complete and utter dysfunction across the board.
If timing means anything, this is the right
moment for U.S. Soccer to change head coaches, with a January camp falling in the middle of a four-month interval until qualifying resumes in March. Only the players know if they can still play for
Klinsmann, and are confident that all the juggling of formations and positions and assignments can be successful in the long term.
Through its pride and competitive spirit, this team has
bounced back from adversity before. Those qualities didn’t show up on Tuesday. A 4-0 thrashing by Argentina in the Centenario semis stung, but that result, even at home, against such an
incredible team can be forgiven.
Just how forgiving is U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, in whose hands the futures of Klinsmann and the USA team reside? We shall see.