By Paul Kennedy
) 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
'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.
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.