The team was already in a hole entering this week’s World Cup qualifying slate due to a crushing 2-1 loss to Honduras in February – a result that leaves them last in their Hexagonal – but that could easily have been overcome with results against Costa Rica Friday night and against archrivals Mexico Tuesday night in Mexico City.
But then came an explosive report by the Sporting News, where 11 players anonymously took shots at manager Jurgen Klinsmann, his staff, his methods (or lack thereof, in their opinion), and some of their teammates – most notably the German-American contingent like Jermaine Jones, a midfielder who is expected to start against Costa Rica.
In a game that has been described by Klinsmann as a “must win” now mere hours away, how can a group of players trust one another?
Ask any manager of a championship-winning team how they achieved their goal, and chemistry is bound to be one of the most cited factors. But take a look at the play of this squad recently – they struggled at times in the earlier rounds of qualifying and sputtered mightly in Honduras where they looked flat and disinterested. They were already lacking in various areas.
Now imagine how a report where some teammates openly questioned others – along with their coaching staff. That’s bound to create tension, not chemistry.
“Did you say this?”
“Were you one of the anonymous sources?”
“How do you really feel about this team?”
Clint Dempsey, the Tottenham Hotspur forward who has been named captain for Friday night’s game, stated that he has not spoken with the team about the allegations. But surely, these types of thoughts are in players’ minds as they prepare for the latest set of matches.
US midfielder Michael Bradley called the report "embarassing" and was blunt in his assessment, telling the Washington Post, "when you play in a team, you have a chance every day to give everything you have and part of that means having the balls to say things to guys to their face and having the balls to say things in front of the team."
World Cup qualifying is an arduous journey – teams are forced to travel far and wide, and expected to get results from the word go. And that’s on top of their actual “day jobs” with their club teams. With little time amongst their national teammates, there must be a foundation of trust and mutual respect.
Can we know for sure that such an environment exists within the US team at this critical junction?
Klinsmann, as ever, did his best to spin this in a positive form. “Journalists and people can say whatever they feel, whatever they think, whatever they believe, which is important," said Kilnsmann. "I think it’s a great sign, all the debate that is going on about soccer in this country. It shows you that people care.”
But at the end of the day, rumors only get started when there is disharmony and results are not there. Only winning can alleviate tension.
US Soccer is celebrating its centennial this year – and they have certainly seen tough times before. But at no other time has the team had such a passionate fan base yearning for glory.
Anything less than a result against Costa Rica at home and against a very tough Mexico away on Tuesday (they are ranked 15th in the world – compared to 33rd for the US in the latest FIFA World Rankings) – and you will see even tougher questions getting asked.
Only success on Friday night in Denver will keep this trouble from becoming a full-on crisis. And the foundational ingredient to any such success, mutual respect and trust, appears to have gone missing.