The United States entered Friday in a tie for first place in Group C of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. They ended it in third. Worse, that fall doesn’t even convey just how bad the day went for Jurgen Klinsmann and Co. But even that pales in comparison to the state of a U.S. program whose World Cup life now hangs in the balance.
To say the U.S. were outclassed by Guatemala would be an understatement. They were thrashed, never competitive and just about beaten after 15 minutes. It was an embarrassing performance by the Americans and the 2-0 loss was entirely fair.
The U.S. losing to Guatemala isn’t a thing that happens. In fact, the U.S. hadn’t lost to Guatemala since 1988, a stretch that spanned 21 matches, but that ended on Friday and joins a long list of American streaks that have come to a screeching halt over the past nine months.
No longer have the U.S. not lost to a Caribbean team at home since 1969. That ended when the Americans lost to Jamaica at last year’s Gold Cup. Their streak of five consecutive Gold Cup finals also ended with that loss. And now their unbeaten run over Guatemala is gone too.
The question is where the Americans go from here, because you would think that they can’t go much lower. Then again, that’s been said about Klinsmann’s crew plenty of times over the past 18 months and they’ve managed to do it anyway.
First off, the U.S. need to beat Guatemala on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio. A win there will put them back in second place in Group C, which is fine because the top two teams from the group advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying. But three points are a must now.
There is no more margin for error because anything less than a win would mean the Americans could be left to depend on St. Vincent and the Grenadines to get points off of Trinidad and Tobago or Guatemala, which is like needing your great grandpa to go to a Young Thug concert.
If the U.S. can’t beat Guatemala, they are looking at not just the possibility of missing out on the 2018 World Cup. That disaster scenario becomes likely. And they would do it without even making the final round of qualifying, an embarrassing cherry on top of the turd sundae that is failing to earn a spot in Russia.
Beyond Tuesday’s match, which will be the biggest the U.S. has played in years, the team, Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer have a lot to sort out and not much time to do it. Because even if they win in Ohio, there is little reason for optimism heading into Copa America Centenario, potentially the final round of qualifying and, if they make it, the World Cup.
These aren’t new problems. They go back to the end of the 2014 World Cup. The U.S. were successful in Brazil, making the round of 16, but they didn’t play beautiful soccer. They weren’t "proactive," like Klinsmann promised when he took over. But the steps toward that quality were supposed to come in the years that followed. Instead, all there have been are losses, embarrassments and arguably the worst national team in decades.
A couple wins in friendlies can’t mask a team that has conceded first in nine of its past 11 matches. A team that has struggled to create chances. A team that isn’t fluid in possession. A team that doesn’t defend well. A team that had its worst Gold Cup ever a year ago, lost to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, lost to the 95th-ranked team in the world, Guatemala, and is now in danger of missing out on the World Cup.
That is all in the past 18 months.
Those are the problems Klinsmann has. Unfortunately for U.S. Soccer, that means that those are the problems they have, and they also have another, bigger problem: What do they do about Klinsmann?
U.S. Soccer is heavily invested in Klinsmann, both financially and with the unprecedented power they gave him. They are rightfully inclined to give him every chance possible, but as any competent leaders must do, they have to know when that last chance has been used up and a change has to be made.
By any quantitative measure, there shouldn’t be a chance left. The team is in shambles and much of it can be laid at Klinsmann’s feet. Of course the Americans aren’t so talented that they can compete with the world’s best, but they are talented enough to be one of the best team’s in CONCACAF and right now they’re not close. It’s impossible to argue that the U.S. is playing up to its talent level, and that comes down in large part to players being played out of position, poor tactics and an inability to find a squad and approach that maximize the players’ strengths. Those are all managerial failures.
To argue for Klinsmann and the team’s recent performances (although at 18 months, recent is no longer so recent) is to bet on hope. It’s to bet on a reputation and a shiny name. It’s to bet on a fear of change. It surely isn’t a bet on results or your eyes.
Klinsmann has blamed terrible losses on luck before, and he’s also taken to pointing to setbacks as key learning experiences. But now the results are adding up and these are results that matter. They’re the Gold Cup and now World Cup qualifying. They’re Copa America Centenario in the summer. In competitions like those, all that matters is wins, and those have been few and far between. But nothing was as bad as what was put forth in Guatemala City.
It was a hot mess masquerading as the U.S. national team and it was a new low for a program that has been trending downward for nearly two years. Now their World Cup lives are on the line, but that is the short-term. Those are the stakes for Tuesday. Long-term, there is so much more, and that is scary considering that the World Cup is the biggest prize in the sport.
So where does the U.S. go from here? It better be up, and it better happen quickly. For the team’s sake. For Klinsmann’s sake. For U.S. Soccer’s sake.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati (right) may have a decision to make soon on Jurgen Klinsmann.
Guatemala trounced the U.S. from the opening whistle.