Jurgen Klinsmann faces make-or-break week with United States
The magnitude of what's at stake for the U.S. men's national team on Tuesday can't be overstated.
In Columbus, Ohio, the team takes on Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier just days after Los Chapines beat the U.S. 2-0 in Guatemala City, ramping up the blood pressure on the Americans' qualifying effort.
After that match, about 1,000 miles to the southwest, the U.S. U23 team will attempt to qualify for this summer's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro when it plays the second leg of its two-game series against Colombia in Frisco, Texas. The Americans were pushed to the limit in the first leg but survived and even bagged a precious away goal in a 1-1 draw.
The impulse is to label the day as nothing less than a referendum on the tenure of manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who also serves as technical director, at which point the sense of déjà vu kicks in. It was five months ago that the last supposed "day of reckoning" on Klinsmann's stewardship took place.
On Oct. 10, the U.S. took on Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, with a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup on the line. Earlier that day, the U.S. U23 team attempted to qualify for the Rio Olympics against Honduras in Salt Lake City. It proved to be a brutal day. The U23s were beaten 2-0, while the senior side lost 3-2 in extra time.
Coming on the heels of a lackluster performance at the Gold Cup, the feeling that the U.S. program had lost its bearings gained momentum, yet there was no reckoning to be had. U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati maintained his support of Klinsmann, and in the background was the unwritten rule surrounding Klinsmann and his job security: So long as the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup, all will be forgiven.
After Friday's debacle in Guatemala City, even that is now in danger. Yet in the mixed zone underneath the Estadio Mateo Flores, there was Gulati once again backing Klinsmann, insisting that he wasn't concerned about the team's direction and that his evaluation of the program doesn't happen game to game.
Now, the stakes on Tuesday are immense -- much higher than they were in October. Qualifying for the Confederations Cup can be filed under "nice to have," not "need to have." And as much as Klinsmann has stressed the importance of Olympic qualification, a failure to qualify for Rio won't do near the damage that a World Cup qualifying flameout would. That is why for all intents and purposes, Tuesday's game in Columbus is a must-win situation. A failure by the senior side to win would leave the U.S. not only needing victories in its last two games -- including a far-from-easy home tilt against Trinidad and Tobago -- but also possibly relying on other results or goal difference to scrape through.
Such a scenario should cost Klinsmann his job but it won't. Gulati seems convinced the German is the man to maneuver the U.S. through this round of qualifying, and his faith has some foundation. Four years ago the U.S. lost to Jamaica 2-1 in Kingston, complicating matters greatly. The U.S. then managed to secure a series of tense, tight victories, including a 1-0 win over the Reggae Boyz at home and a 2-1 road victory at Antigua and Barbuda. The U.S. then subdued Guatemala 3-1 to clinch top spot in the group despite falling behind early.
A similar run could certainly transpire this time, but the U.S. is in a much different place than it was four years ago. There is far less cohesion within the team, and outside of Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and perhaps Geoff Cameron, there are no constants in the lineup. Some of this is injury induced, otherwise Jozy Altidore would be included in that group, but even Cameron doesn't have a set position these days.
There is also the Americans' recent spate of dubious achievements. Last summer's Gold Cup semifinal defeat to Jamaica was the first time the U.S. had lost to the Reggae Boyz on home soil. Friday's loss was the first to Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier. The U.S. has also conceded the first goal in nine of its past 11 games. Suffice to say, confidence in Klinsmann and his methods is at an all-time low.
In an ironic twist, the Olympic team is in a better state of mind after its exploits in Barranquilla, Colombia, though the job is only half done. The U.S. will need to keep the ball far better than it did in the first leg, when Colombia held a 75-25 percent edge in possession. The U.S. did well to create some good chances, but it seems unlikely that the Americans can cede possession to that extent while also counting on Colombia being as profligate in front of goal as it was in the first leg.
Of course, Klinsmann won't be at the helm in Frisco. His assistant, Andi Herzog, will. Yet the outcome of that match, no matter which way it goes, will reflect back on the U.S. manager. And a loss will certainly cause the remaining trust in Klinsmann to further erode.
It's odd to think that Klinsmann seems to have so many of these "referendums," though perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise given the high expectations that came with his hiring as well as the team's underperformance so far this cycle. Regardless, World Cup qualification is the bare minimum required of a U.S. men's national team manager, and no amount of talk about reforming the player development system will change that.
Tuesday's match in Columbus will have a huge say in whether Klinsmann can reach that modest goal.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.