On Tuesday, Jurgen Klinsmann presided over arguably the United States' worst loss of the modern era. By Friday, he may not have a job and, frankly, he shouldn't. There is no reasonable case to be made anymore that Klinsmann should continue as the U.S. manager.
There are some results that cannot be overcome and losing 4-0 to Costa Rica is one of them. It was the Americans' worst shutout loss in World Cup qualifying since 1957 and the Ticos could have easily scored more. Worst of all, it was the team's second straight loss to open the final round of qualifying, following their defeat to Mexico for their first home qualifying loss in 15 years, and now the Americans' World Cup hopes are in serious peril.
“This is definitely a moment to reflect about what happened the last 10 days and probably open up a lot of discussions with the players, with the team,” Klinsmann said after the match.
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The problem is that's an attitude the U.S. should have had after embarrassingly going out of the Gold Cup in the semifinals last year. And after being beaten by Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup three months later. And after losing to Guatemala in March for the first time since 1988.
This isn't one atrocious match for the Americans. Klinsmann has presided over more than a year of historic losses. Costa Rica was just the most stark and, unquestionably, most damaging.
Going out of the Gold Cup, failing to qualify for the Confederations Cup or being embarrassed by a minnow are all problematic, but none of that compares to missing out on the World Cup and that is a reality the U.S. have to start facing because they are dead last in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Nothing would hurt the U.S. program more than missing out on a World Cup. It would be a huge embarrassment to the national team, which has the benefit of playing in CONCACAF's ultra-forgiving qualifying format. It would stunt the growth of the sport in the country too. But more than anything, it would be unconscionable for the most talented American team since at least 2002 (and arguably ever) to miss out on the World Cup when the previous seven U.S. teams all made it. Even the 1990 team made up of primarily semi-pros and amateurs managed to get to the World Cup.
Exactly how the U.S. can be this bad is beyond reason. On paper, the Americans have gotten better and better players. But on the field it's abundantly clear why they're in trouble: Klinsmann.
When Klinsmann took over the U.S., he faced questions about his tactical acumen, and over the last five years he's done little to quell those concerns. None of his tactical failings rang as loudly as in their loss to Mexico on Friday, though. The Americans went out with an unfamiliar three-man backline and paid for it dearly. It took them all of 27 minutes to change course, but only after the team was 1-0 down in what Michael Bradley called a “group” decision.
That “group” didn't seem very pleased with Klinsmann's tactical choice. Bradley intimated that the team didn't have an understanding of clear roles in the match and Jermaine Jones hinted at similar issues, all right after Klinsmann made a point to pin the system's failings on Bradley and Jones, saying they didn't do enough to win the 1v1 battles.
Klinsmann didn't just make a tactical error — and in the Americans' biggest and most anticipated match of the Hex to boot — but there appeared to be a growing rift between the manager and two of the team's leaders as the aftermath of a crippling loss turned into a game of finger pointing.
So to go along with his tactical shortcomings, the players are no longer lining up behind Klinsmann, giving the manager has little to lean on. That was on full display against Costa Rica.
Klinsmann sent out the same 10 field players against Costa Rica that he did against Mexico. That included Jones, who only recently returned from injury and looked as unfit and rusty as one would expect. Meanwhile, Timothy Chandler's struggles against Mexico didn't get him dropped, while Matt Besler was back playing out-of-position at left back. Tactically it may not have been disaster that it was against Mexico, but it wasn't good.
Another tactical failure. Check.
And at 2-0, the U.S. looked like they had given up. They were generally unresponsive and just watched the Ticos run by them. For years, the hallmark for the U.S. had been their spirit and fight, but that was gone.
Another mental issue. Check.
It was all gone against Costa Rica. And it was a long time coming. Just like the sacking of Klinsmann has been.
This is the perfect time for the U.S. to make a change, too. Because their next World Cup qualifier isn't until March, a new manager would have nearly two months to take stock of the program and evaluate players, then January camp to get the bulk of the squad into a training camp and at least one friendly, if not two. That would put whoever the federation hired to replace Klinsmann in as good a position as possible for March and the final eight World Cup qualifiers.
Whether U.S. Soccer actually does move on from Klinsmann may have little to do with whether they should, though. It's impossible to put aside just how invested the federation is in Klinsmann. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati dreamed of hiring Klinsmann for years, first trying in 2006, then again in 2010 before finally getting him in 2011. But hiring him required turning over the entire men's program to him and paying him over $3 million-per-year. Then they extended his contract through the 2018 World Cup before the 2014 World Cup even started.
Klinsmann was the guy for U.S. Soccer. They sold his hire as a transformative one. To quit on that is not easy.
But Gulati and the rest of the federation need to do what's right for the program, no matter how hard it may be. The bar that the federation and Klinsmann set for the program when he was hired was extraordinarily high — higher than any other manager before him. But that's not the problem anymore. Klinsmann isn't failing to deliver on what he promised, but he's falling short of the minimum expectations for the U.S. and that has to be addressed with change, no matter how famous that manager is and how much has been invested in him.
“We’ll think about what happened today and talk with Jurgen and look at the situation,” Gulati told reporters after the loss to Costa Rica.
When they look at the situation, it won't be pretty. It hasn't been pretty for a long time. And it's past due for Klinsmann to go.