Commentary

Looming World Cup qualifying fight adds to USA's unsettling picture

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Jurgen Klinsmann spent all year hyping up the 2017 Confederations Cup to which the USA would have qualified by winning either the 2015 Gold Cup or the one-off Concacaf Cup. Neither happened so it's on to the next task: qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Indeed, all the talk about the importance of Confederations Cup was kind of silly. What's the point of playing in the World Cup dress rehearsal if you aren't going to the main event? Forget about going to the Confederations Cup. Is the USA in any kind of shape to qualify for the World Cup a year later?

Calls for Klinsmann to be fired grew as the USA slumped to fourth place at the Gold Cup -- its second worst finish in history -- and then lost to Mexico at the Concacaf Cup. Actually, it was the horrific showing in the Brazil friendly seven weeks ago that freaked everyone out.

We've come to take qualifying for the World Cup for granted. The USA has gone to the last seven World Cups, including the 1994 finals it hosted. Since Concacaf instituted the Hexagonal -- the six-team final round -- for 1998 qualifying, the USA has breezed to the finals. It's won the last three Hexagonals, in 2005, 2009 and 2013, and has never had to go down to the 10th and final game with qualification in doubt.

In 1997, the USA looked to be in trouble after it could only manage a 1-1 tie with Jamaica at RFK Stadium -- there was even talk of Carlos Queiroz waiting in the wings to replace Steve Sampson -- but it tied Mexico, 0-0, in Azteca Stadium and then beat Canada, 3-0, in Burnaby, B.C., to clinch. Four years later, a huge lead evaporated thanks to three straight losses to Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica, but the USA clinched when it beat Jamaica, 2-1, on a pair of Joe-Max Moore goals including a penalty kick set up by Landon Donovan in the latter's breakout national team game no one saw on television -- programming was preempted for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan less than a month after 9-11.

No one was counting on the USA qualifying on Matchday 9, but Honduras lost at home to Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0, to send the Americans through. Indeed, the ease of the USA's qualifying campaigns has almost always depended on one of its main rivals collapsing, like the Catrachos did in 2001 and again in 2009 when they lost at home to the USA, 3-2, in San Pedro Sula in the penultimate game of qualifying and the last game for Bob Bradley's great team before Charlie Davies' car accident three days later and Oguchi Onyewu's knee injury a day after that.

The USA will enter 2018 World Cup qualifying not being able to count on Mexico collapsing like El Tri did in 2013 when it needed a late goal by Graham Zusi in the Panama-USA game to spare it from elimination.

As U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati considers what to do with Klinsmann, he'll have to weigh the risks of sticking with Klinsmann through qualifying or changing coaches in mid-course and if he makes a move when to do so. There are two points at which Gulati could pull the trigger -- after the November qualifiers if, for example, the USA loses badly at Trinidad & Tobago or after the Copa Centenario next summer if the USA continues to flounder. Qualifying starts for the USA eight months earlier than it did four years ago, but the semifinal round is spread out between this November and next September so there is plenty of time to consider a change.

One thing Gulati will have to count on is that the Hexagonal will be the toughest in which the USA has ever played. Of the five teams in the 2013 Hexagonal, the USA has played them all in 2015 and beaten only Honduras in their last meeting. And there is no way to count on the Catrachos being as weak as they were in the Gold Cup as they are coached by Jorge Luis Pinto, one of best tacticians in the region. (If you have any doubts, watch as the Honduran U-23s he coached dismantled the USA, 2-0, to qualify for the Olympics.)

About the only good news on the Hexagonal front is that the USA's five opponents from 2013 won't all be able to qualify for the final round of qualifying that will begin in the fall of 2016. One of the three semifinal groups includes Costa Rica, Panama and Jamaica, so at least one of them won't be playing in the Hexagonal.

Since two teams advance from each of the three semifinal groups, the USA will be joined -- assuming it moves on -- in the Hexagonal by one of the other three teams from its group, Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala or St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

Trinidad & Tobago, the best placed of the three to advance, is emblematic of the improving level of play in Concacaf. Like Jamaica, which finished second at the 2015 Gold Cup, the Soca Warriors are coming off a great summer, winning their Gold Cup group ahead of Mexico when they played to a 4-4 tie in Chicago. To show that was no fluke, T&T played El Tri again in September and earned a 3-3 draw in Utah.

While Jack Warner left T&T soccer in a state of disarray and a recent change in governments will only bring new questions about state support for the national team, T&T has done one good thing and that is that it has stuck with its head coach, Stephen Hart. In that regard, the T&T Football Association is like its counterpart in Jamaica, which has stuck with German Winfried Schaefer for more than two years. That decision paid off as the Reggae Boyz beat the USA, 2-1, en route to the Gold Cup final.

Ironic, then, that Gulati must decide whether to buck that trend and make a change at the top.
32 comments about "Looming World Cup qualifying fight adds to USA's unsettling picture".
  1. David Mont, October 23, 2015 at 8:34 a.m.

    "if, for example, the USA loses badly at Trinidad & Tobago" -- badly meaning by the huge score or just not playing well? I'm sure the former will not happen, and the latter almost certainly will. What about a 0-0 or 1-1 draw and the team playing lousy?

  2. Gus Keri, October 23, 2015 at 9:05 a.m.

    Before we talk about he hexagonal, let us pass the semifinals group successfully. With the way the USMNT is playing recently, good luck to them against Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and St. Vincent & the Grenadines. I never thought I will say this about the USMNT. Thanks to Klinsmann and Gulati, Our confidence in the team is at the lowest point.

  3. Kelly Quinn, October 23, 2015 at 9:09 a.m.

    Does US soccer have someone to replace Klinsmann with? Perhaps before the US fires a coach they should have a solid replacement in mind.

  4. Steven Erickson, October 23, 2015 at 10:19 a.m.

    With all the garbage coming to the surface in the FIFA investigation it's past due on a complete sanitation from the top down! That sanitation includes Gulati and Klinsmann, both of which have not established a blinding shine on US Soccer. What has happened to the esteem and respect that US coaches/directors have garnered in days past? I think a picture was taken of the desk plaques they have on their respective desks that state "The Buck Literally Stops Here". Change in the US program must start now so the fan base absolutely knows "We have the cleanest most respected Soccer in the World".

  5. John Foust, October 23, 2015 at 11:06 a.m.

    Can we please figure out a way to fire Gulati? None of our programs are doing that well, except for the wonderful result at the WWC. Our youth programs seem to generate activity but not identify soccer instinct. Gulati has been in charge of all of this and bears responsibility. We need change.

  6. Fire Paul Gardner Now, October 23, 2015 at 11:37 a.m.

    Look, this group is about as easy as could reasonably be expected. If we are having trouble in a group with Guatemala, T&T and Saint Vincent, we are in a lot bigger trouble than even I think and I am one of the biggest advocates of firing JK out there. 16 out of 18 points should be the minimum we take from this group.

  7. Kent James replied, October 23, 2015 at 1:47 p.m.

    Though I disagree with your identity (?!?), I certainly agree that if we have trouble in this group, we have really come down a long way...

  8. Julio Moreira, October 23, 2015 at 12:18 p.m.

    As far as soccer-Football is concerned Sunil Gulatti is a good economist. But we're discussing the "beautiful fame" and his USMNT coach,
    is a pity, the there are no more Balboas, Cobby Jones, Alexis Lalas, Landon Donovan in the horizon, only Bradley and Howard of this USMNT.
    Fire JK and SG and hire a real and successful proven coach, before is too late.

  9. beautiful game, October 23, 2015 at 12:51 p.m.

    Let's be realistic. The days of Arena's USMNT success was primarily based on passion, physicality, and a good Soccer IQ. What coach K has is little passion and physicality, and a mediocre Soccer IQ squad. That doesn't excuse K from being an alienotor instead of a unifier.

  10. Dan Phillips, October 23, 2015 at 12:53 p.m.

    JK has to stop relying on the older guys + the one lazy guy (Altidore), and play the new young guns, like Johansson, Morris, Wood. It is time to put lazy/Jozy, Wondo, Parrkhurst, Gordon, Jones, Beasley etc. out to pasture. Play the younger, faster guys and let the chips fall where they may. Win or lose. At least that way if we win, we know what we got going into 2018. if you win with the old guys, they will not be around in 2018, and you would have to go with the new younger guys anyway, but then they will lack the qualifying/pressure experience going into Russia.

  11. David Mont replied, October 23, 2015 at 4:30 p.m.

    When did Wondo, Parkhurst, Gordon last play any meaningful minutes? Come to think of it, when did Parkhurst last play for the national team?

  12. Ric Fonseca, October 23, 2015 at 4:09 p.m.

    tO ONE AND ALL: You all seem to forget or just do not know that in order to fire US Soccer Fed. Pres, Sunil Gulati a specially convened General Meeting of ALL of the state soccer associations, affiliated to US Soccer, would need to take place. Gulati was ELECTED to the position - running unopposed and voted in for a third term by acclamation several years ago. And if memory serves me correct, this hasn't happened - yet - so buckle up and hang on for more of the Gulati years. As to fire JK, it is only too obvious that there is a hurricane sized "wave" to call for his removal, however, as someone above pointed out, who is or would be the anointed one? Lastly, we cannot continue to dwell in the past glories of our sport, that was then and this is now. Like you I despair about where we are as a soccer nation, which I will equate it to a "soccer pueblo", but thing for sure, let's get our collective heads out of the sand and work together, whether it means for JK's removal, or whatever suits our fancy now and for the future of soccer. One last comment, I am sure glad that the movie
    Back to the Future sure as heck did not focus on our sport, I mean after all, they said the Cubs would win it all, and yet...

  13. John Foust, October 23, 2015 at 4:12 p.m.

    Dan, that's exactly the right point I believe. I disagree Altidore is inherently lazy, as he's not that much different from Deuce as far as field movement. But they move as they've been instructed in a formation that doesn't work. I recall a game awhile back where Altidore played on the outside of a multi-forward formation, and he created space quite well. We seem to be stuck in a 4231 or a poor-man's 442 where the 2 up front do not sync. We don't have German discipline that JK was brought up with, yet he tries to play formations that require it as opposed to a more creative flow. With the US' latin heritage and player pool, we would probably benefit from a Latino coach who understands soccer as the beautiful game, vice just another American athletic contest to be won through strength, conditioning, and spirit (all needed, but not central to winning soccer). We need players with soccer instincts and a hunger to move, creatively, into space all the time - our players now just move. No knock on most of their work ethic, but in the end it appears to end up looking like wated energy ...

  14. David Mont replied, October 23, 2015 at 4:41 p.m.

    I'm a bit tired of hearing about this mythical Latino heritage which supposedly produces the beautiful game. I've been watching soccer for almost 50 years now, and some of the most boring, unimaginative, physical, ponderous teams I've seen over the years have come from Latin America -- an obvious example would be Uruguay and Chile for most of the last 50 years. Brazil-74 was a torture to watch and it wasn't much more entartaining even when it won in '94 and '02. For some reason, there is this notion that we have tons of Latin players in this country who are somehow being missed, but if discovered, would lead the US to glory. Well, the US youth teams are now much more Hispanic than they were 5, 10, 15 years ago, and the results have been worse.

  15. John Foust, October 23, 2015 at 4:46 p.m.

    David - no argument, but nothing else - especially the Euro-centric approach - has worked either. Need to break the "definition of insanity" loop, starting with our approach to coaching and the myriad of (conflicting) competitive soccer participation paths. We seem determined to "do it our way," which is to keep multiple youth development programs chugging along with the same coaching staffs, year after year, with the same predictable, dire results - any suggestions?

  16. Dan Phillips, October 23, 2015 at 4:56 p.m.

    Even if some of these old guys don't get playing time, they get put on JK's roster, wasting roster spots that could be taken by younger players. And, yes, Altidore is lazy. I have seen him many times just walking back when they lose the ball, instead of running and tracking back. Just give it up on that big hulk. He is just a big body. Mexico wins with small bodies, speed and quickness. We need to concentrate on that.

  17. David Mont replied, October 23, 2015 at 5:32 p.m.

    "Mexico wins with small bodies, speed and quickness." You forgot to add and with a lot of help from the referees. And what has Mexico won? Sorry, but over the last 15 years or so, Mexico's record hasn't been any better than the US's, especially in head to head games.

  18. David Mont replied, October 23, 2015 at 5:36 p.m.

    Also, are you preaching age discrimination?

  19. Bob Ashpole replied, October 24, 2015 at 12:08 a.m.

    David, Mexico is the current men's Olympic gold medalist, beating Brazil in the gold medal match. The US men didn't even qualify. That 2012 U23 competition record doesn't bode well for the US men's 2018 world cup cycle.

  20. cisco martinez, October 23, 2015 at 6:52 p.m.

    David, look at Mexico's World Cup history, they generally have done better than the US national team. Since 1994-2014 Mexico has consistently reached Round 2 in every World Cup, they have 6-7 players currently playing in the champions league and we have 1, Latin Countries have won the World Cup more times than non-Latin countries, and no ENGLISH coach has ever won the premier league, our NSCAA/USSF coaches have and will supersede physical ability, athleticism, and speed over technical ability, tactical ability, and tactical awareness. These are facts, I've seen this as a former Division I player, assistant coach at nationally ranked school.

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, October 24, 2015 at midnight

    Generally I agree with you, but I don't believe every coach thinks that way. Barca influenced some people with its tiki taka style of play. Also I think the problem is that many coaches think that they only need 1 or 2 skilled players on a team, rather than none. Which means they end up playing a direct counterattacking game with only 1 or 2 good passers on the field. I don't blame coaches for wanting speed, but quickness and tactical speed is better. Sprinting in a 100 yard dash (a 10 second event, straight ahead, and without a ball) is not the type of speed needed. I blame the pay to play model. The parents are the customers, and they want match results rather than development even at the youngest levels. So coaches and clubs select kids based on their current ability instead of their future promise. Since the coaches generally select the most mature players in each age group, they are not even selecting the best athletes.

  22. David Mont replied, October 24, 2015 at 10:07 a.m.

    Mexico, a soccer crazy nation where all boys play the game since the very young age, has done at best only marginally better than the US in the last 20 years or so. They've never even reached the WC quarterfinals played outside Mexico, whereas the US did in '02. With the popularity of the game in Mexico, it should've done a lot better than the US. And I don't understand the relevance of the fact that no English coach has ever won the EPL. I can say that non-Latin coaches have won it more often than Latin ones. In any case, you can't lump all Latin countries together. They've all had very distinctive styles -- Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Italy, Spain, France. I don't see one common Latin style there.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, October 24, 2015 at 4:20 p.m.

    David: I agree with you that nationality doesn't prevent success in soccer. The ball is round everywhere. I do think you underestimate the popularity of soccer in the US as a participation sport, it is no. 1. Mexico has a population of 107 million of which about 90 million are Hispanics. The US has a population of about 320 million, of which 55 million are Hispanics, the majority are of Mexican heritage. So it is likely that there are as many soccer players in the US as in Mexico. The biggest difference between the US and Mexico is that youth in Mexico can be professional players supporting their families. In the US the money flows the other way. And the adults have now organized youth soccer to death down to the U-Little level.

  24. Nalin Carney, October 24, 2015 at 8:47 a.m.

    G O O D B Y E JURGEN ! ! !

  25. Soccer Madness, October 24, 2015 at 10:33 p.m.

    David, Its funny to me how we like to say Mexico hasnt done much better than us in Soccer as a way to justify our mediocracy when in fact Mexico has done much more than us if we open our eyes past the Senior level. They have won U17 twice and are a force in last 10 years or so winning 1st place in their group and beating Germany to do so, handidly I might add. U23 win olympic gold just recently. U20 performed better than us even though it was subpar to them. Senior Mexico team outplayed us in World Cup. No doubt. You guys actually still believe bunkering and countering and getting to 2nd round is doing good? Lets get our heads out of our ass and realize that we are farther behind than ever. U23 will lose to much much more superior Colombia. Our senior team sucks. The U17s were supposed to be our much anticipated improved product. We are lied to and we believe it.

  26. David Mont replied, October 25, 2015 at 10:42 p.m.

    I'm not saying it to justify our mediocracy, but to make the point that there is no reason to hold Mexico up as a shining example. And as far as Mexican successes at the youth level -- since 1988 they do not impress me.

  27. Andrew Kear, October 25, 2015 at 10:43 a.m.

    Getting rid of Klinsmann is the right thing to do, but how will it be done? Gulati is still believing the delusion Klinsmann is good for US soccer. Klinsmann will eventually be forced out so maybe it is better to fire him now rather than during qualifying.

  28. Ric Fonseca, October 25, 2015 at 3:08 p.m.

    To Davis Ashpole: First, I am Mexican-born, a US naturalized citizen, veteran, and retired college prof. Second, I am literally astounded and almost fell off my chair when I read your statement that "...Mexico has a population of 107 million of which about 90 million are Hispanics...(sic)"!!! WOW, had you taken my Mexican history course you'd flunked out, and third, I find your comment extremely xenophobic and ignorant. But then again, why am I even bothering to answer? I won't get into the demographics of Mexico, but I do recommend that you at least familiarize yourself with the history of Mexico, pre and post colonial period and the national era. As for futbol soccer played in Mexico, several amigos above have clarified where Mexico has surpassed my adopted country - the US - and while some above decry the dearth of Latino players (or Hispanics as you prefer) in many of the US national teams, I know something about this. But then again I won't bother you with factoids. As for Altidore appearing to be lazy, I also point out that BOTH Dempsey and Bradly are just as lazy and need to say "no mas!" And now during our sorry-assed loss to Chile the other evening, woa, how come I don't hear that Richie Williams must be fired as well? And finally Soccer Madness put it succinctly, brief, and to the point... read his comment above.

  29. Bob Ashpole replied, October 26, 2015 at 3:15 p.m.

    I am not sure how much of your comment is directed to me. You certainly hated my word choice, but I think you understood what I said. My population numbers are about 10 years out of date. Mexico has a population of about 120 million currently. As for your criticism of my use of the English word Hispanic to compare the non-indigenous segment of the Mexican population to the US Hispanic population, I would like to see you try to phrase it differently using English words and still communicate the concept in a few brief sentences that the average adult can comprehend. I expect that most readers don't know what we are arguing about. I had thought of comparing the US Hispanic population to a Hispanic country, but then there is the difference between Latin and Hispanic countries. So I stayed with just a comparison to Mexico.

  30. Daniel Clifton, October 25, 2015 at 4:03 p.m.

    I agree that Soccer Madness is telling it like it is. Our youth development is falling further and further behind. Richie Williams should be fired. Our U17 team is an embarrassment. I think the USMNT is going to lose in Trinidad. We will probably make it to the Hexagonal with the weak group we are in. However, beyond the way this team is going with the coach who is taking them there, it will be difficult to qualify for the World Cup. Quite frankly that is probably what needs to happen. As some people have pointed out Gulati is entrenched, and he for some reason thinks Klinsmann is the answer regardless of all evidence to the contrary. I believe youth development in the US is going to have to come from the MLS teams. US Soccer is broken. Pay to play is here to stay and it obviously gives us what we got with the U17 team.

  31. Andrew Kear, October 26, 2015 at 8:11 a.m.

    It is amazing how much damage Klinsmann has done to US soccer in such a short time. During the Bradley years the USMNT stopped Spain's record winning steak in the Confederation Cup. Now under Klinsmann the USMNT loses to Panama at home!

  32. Chester Grant, October 26, 2015 at 5:05 p.m.

    I think the main Klinsmann problem is the propensity to look to German and non USA players with which to seed the US team.....
    Example: our best player in a generation (L.D.) doesn't make the World Cup team in place of Greene, a German teenager who in 2015 is plying his trade in the German 3rd Division.
    Feilhaber doesnt get a look - despite a winning strike in the Gold Cup, and two titles with Sporting KC....and on and on.

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