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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
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After Ireland rout, U.S. veterans say team needs to regain their fight

DUBLIN -- Even the eternally optimistic Jurgen Klinsmann struggled to find a silver lining after this one. There was just no sugarcoating it. The national team's 4-1, year-ending friendly loss to Ireland on Tuesday was ugly. The lopsided result here matched the worst of Klinsmann's three-plus years in charge, when the U.S. was routed by Brazil in May 2012.

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After it was over, the coach was in no mood to mince words.

"They have to get tougher," Klinsmann said of American players in general and the starting 11 he sent onto the field at Aviva Stadium, a lineup that included nine members of the U.S. squad that reached the knockout stage of the Would Cup less than five months ago.

Then -- perhaps not coincidentally -- he repeated a word he used after that loss to Brazil.

"I'm telling you again, we have to get nastier," he said. "We have to become more physical. We have to hold our ground more, be dominant. Our players need to learn to live that way, to be accountable, responsible for what they do every day in training and in the games. But we are not there yet. We have quite a way to go."

The German was answering a question about how to fix the general malaise that seems to have set in since the World Cup, specifically among some of his most senior players. The U.S. has won just one of five games since their run to the round of 16 this past summer, and they have given up goals after the 80th minute in each of their past four.

None of those matches had points at stake, of course. And in all of them, Klinsmann experimented with different formations and blooded promising youngsters. Early in a new cycle, that makes sense. What's harder to understand is the sudden lack of fight his team has, how they seem to have lost some of the never-say-die attitude long considered one of the program's biggest strengths. It's become a worrying trend.

"You have to always take what's worked for us in the past, and that's being tough to beat," Jozy Altidore said after Tuesday's loss. "When you look at the past three or four games, maybe that bite, that mentality, that will isn't there.

"For some of the older guys it's unacceptable, including myself," the striker continued. "Those kind of things can't happen. We didn't come to play today."

Kyle Beckerman showed some of the physical play U.S. fans have grown accustomed to, but as a team, the Americans lacked the fighting spirit that helped them succeed in the past.

Among the vets, Altidore actually acquitted himself well, as did Alejandro Bedoya. But defenders Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson -- all of them starters at Brazil 2014 -- each committed costly miscues.

"You can't make those mistakes, and those were our experienced guys who made those mistakes," Klinsmann said. "Is that a concern? Absolutely."

Why it's happening -- and more to the point, how to fix it -- are open questions. Klinsmann pointed to the mental toll the World Cup took on his team. Others see a team that has been overworked to the point of exhaustion and desperately needs some time off.

Not surprisingly, Klinsmann doesn't see it that way. He has a point when he notes how much newcomers such as Bill Hamid, Jordan Morris, Rubio Rubin and Bobby Wood stand to benefit down the road from their time on the field Tuesday.

Either way, many of the vets will get a break now, as the full U.S. team won't convene again until the next international match in early March. That will give Klinsmann and his players plenty of time think about this loss and figure out how to rebound and find the fighting spirit that has recently abandoned them.

"I think that we've been taught some lessons the past few games," Bedoya said. "You can say whatever you want -- that this is part of the learning process, the development, the progress -- but we just have to get it together."

Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.

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