This is Jurgen Klinsmann's most important match as USMNT manager
On Tuesday night, it was clear that United States national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann felt relieved.
The U.S. had just beaten Costa Rica, 4-0, in a must-win match. Unlike days earlier, when a tense Klinsmann responded curtly to questions he apparently didn't like after a 2-0 loss to Colombia, Klinsmann was relaxed and even a bit gregarious on this night.
The win over Costa Rica didn't put Klinsmann in the clear -- the U.S. can still crash out of their group in Copa America if they lose to Paraguay on Saturday. But the win and three points helped push fate off for a few more days.
As Klinsmann put it: "The result -- in this country, that's all that matters to a lot of people."
He's right, and it's become increasingly clear that U.S. Soccer may now share that same philosophy. Promises for the future and results from previous cycles aren't going to be enough to keep Klinsmann on the job anymore -- he needs to get tangible results.
With that, Klinsmann faces what probably amounts to the most important match of his U.S. tenure up to this point against Paraguay on Saturday. If the U.S. lose, they will exit the Copa America Centenario in the group stage, which is simply unacceptable and should put Klinsmann on the hot seat.
The U.S. have the talent and the home-field advantage to advance, and getting beyond the group stage is the lowest bar anyone could set. But if the U.S. do exit in the group stage, viewed through the prism of the past 18 months of poor results, it may be too many subpar results under Klinsmann for U.S. Soccer to bear.
Klinsmann has called Copa America a "gift" to the U.S. but most of all, it is a gift to Klinsmann. Coming off a string of humiliating results in the past 18 months, including the USA's worst Gold Cup finish in 15 years and a shocking World Cup qualifier loss to Guatemala, Copa America gives Klinsmann a unique opportunity to change the narrative around his team.
After a lowlight like last summer's Gold Cup, the team normally would only be able to move onto World Cup qualifying, a setting that simply doesn't have the power to improve the perception of Klinsmann's coaching abilities. That's because the U.S. are always expected to qualify for the World Cup -- they qualified for the last seven World Cups and doing so again would simply be routine.
For Klinsmann to make up for the past 18 months -- which included missing out on a Confederations Cup spot to rival Mexico -- he needs Copa America. It is the only way outside of a FIFA World Cup to prove that he has put the U.S. on a path to success.
But with the high stakes of success on the table come the flipside for Klinsmann: If the U.S. do poorly against Paraguay and crash out of the group stage on Saturday, it will be an unmitigated disaster at a time when U.S. Soccer seems to be upping the scrutiny of their coach.
That brings us back to Klinsmann's own admission of the stakes: "The result -- in this country, that's all that matters to a lot of people."
As it should be.
It's not as if Klinsmann inherited a U.S. team that was incapable of earning results. They qualified for the previous six World Cups when he was hired and had generally been considered a dominant force in CONCACAF, second only to Mexico. What Klinsmann was hired to do was improve the USA's ability to earn results and improve the team's standing in the world.
But lately, as the past 18 months have shown, Klinsmann's team has had trouble merely maintaining the results we've all come to expect from the U.S. in the past. That's why any celebration over the U.S. beating Costa Rica feels like a clear lowering of the bar -- the U.S. should always be expected to beat CONCACAF competition that isn't Mexico.
In that sense, the result against Costa Rica shouldn't really matter in the grand scheme of things -- it's all about Saturday against Paraguay.
If the No. 31-ranked team cannot defeat No. 44-ranked Paraguay, there's no amount of explanation that will help Klinsmann's case. He can again claim the U.S. were "absolutely even" with the other side, as he bewilderingly did after the U.S. lost to Colombia. He can again claim that Americans aren't educated enough about soccer, but it won't work.
The results won't lie and Klinsmann knows it. And after a string of bad results since last year, Klinsmann may be beyond earning the benefit of the doubt. The final group stage match of Copa America could be the most important match of Klinsmann's tenure with the USA. The result matters, and his job may depend on it.
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