No positives for Klinsmann or players after U.S.' shocking loss to Costa Rica
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -- There's a tendency among athletes and coaches, regardless of sport, to try to look on the bright side after a crushing loss. It's just how they're built. The highs can't be too high, nor the lows too low.
It's an attitude that can rub fans who live and die with their teams the wrong way at times. There's a memorable scene in Nick Hornby's famous football tome "Fever Pitch" where Hornby, an Arsenal lifer, comes to the upsetting realization that he cares about the results far more than his heroes on the field do.
Generally, though, it's a healthy approach for any professional to take, which is why hearing U.S. players and manager Jurgen Klinsmann talk following the Americans' 4-0 shellacking by Costa Rica on Tuesday was so jarring. There wasn't the faintest attempt to accentuate the positive after this one. Basically, there were no silver linings to be found.
"We just weren't good enough," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said after the Yanks suffered their worst defeat yet in a place they'd dropped eight straight heading into the match, the last four by multiple goals, to start the final round of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia with back-to-back defeats.
"On a night like this, there's no point in trying to look at it any other way," Bradley continued. "You have to be big enough and strong enough to just be able to say we weren't good enough. In terms of understanding what the game was going to be about, knowing how we needed to play in a game that had so much on the line, we didn't have a good enough night. The reality was we weren't good enough, and a good team in an environment like this makes you pay."
Did the Ticos ever do that. Backed by more than 35,000 red-clad supporters at Estadio Nacional, the home team took the lead two minutes before halftime when Johan Venegas nodded Cristian Bolanos' cross past Brad Guzan.
Once Bolanos doubled Costa Rica's advantage with just over 20 minutes to play, the contest was effectively over for an American squad apparently still reeling from Friday's last-gasp loss to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.
"I think they really gave us a psychological knock with that goal right before halftime," Klinsmann said. "But still, you cannot then give away three more in the second half."
Klinsmann was unusually contrite in his postmatch news conference, calling the rout "the defeat that hurts the most in my five years" at the U.S. helm. He even publicly blamed himself for his role in the outcome, something that he has almost never done no matter how much his curious tactical or personnel decisions impacted a particular result.
"There's always things that you think about and say you should have done differently, you should have maybe sent in different players or different formation," Klinsmann said. "Absolutely you question a lot of things that you have done, and I take full responsibility."
Still, it's not as though the manager's rare mea culpa absolves his players of blame. While the Americans have never boasted an elite squad in the 26 years since the returning to the global stage by qualifying for the 1990 World Cup and the six events since, they've usually punched above their weight in large part because of a never-die resolve.
That determination was nowhere to be found on Tuesday, and especially after the second goal went in.
"First, you have to come out here and play for the shirt," Jozy Altidore said. "You can say whatever you want about tactics or formations, but at the end of the day, if you don't have the desire to compete and win matchups, the rest doesn't matter."
Both Altidore and Bradley talked about the need to "look in the mirror" and "have honest conversations" before the U.S. convenes for March's suddenly crucial contests at home against Honduras and away in Panama. Whether Klinsmann is still in charge then remains to be seen.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who said last week that he expected the coach to remain the coach at least through the end of qualifying, stopped short of guaranteeing that Klinsmann would keep his job after Tuesday's performance.
"We won't make any decisions right after games," Gulati told reporters. "We'll think about what happened today and talk with Jurgen and look at the situation."
Whoever is on the sideline, though, it will be up to the players and the players alone to climb out of the hole they've dug for themselves when qualifying resumes next year.
"Nothing is lost yet, not even close, and anyone that thinks that is sorely mistaken," Bradley said. "In moments like this, it does you no good to point fingers and to be looking around trying to figure out who you can throw under the bus."
After the darkest four days in recent national team history, that's about as bright as it's going to get.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.