USA needs result against Costa Rica

March 20, 2013

Jurgen Klinsmann faces a referendum on his tenure as manager of the U.S. men’s national soccer team Friday night here at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. In his own words, it is a “must-win” World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica.

A win against Costa Rica is hardly out of the question. Denver is expected to get 4-6” of snow around game time, and the conditions favor the more workmanlike Americans. But should the USA lose, the jig could be up for the charismatic German coach.

The embattled coach is under fire from several fronts and dealing with a rash of injuries that have depleted his roster. Eight players are out due to injury, including number one keeper Tim Howard, and three first-string defenders: Fabian Johnson, Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler. In addition, Landon Donovan remains unavailable, and Clint Dempsey, while on the roster, is recovering from a calf injury.

But more damaging perhaps was the release of a largely anonymously sourced article by the Sporting News Tuesday afternoon that suggested that Klinsmann has lost control of his lockerroom.

The Sporting News quoted several players anonymously as expressing dissatisfaction over their technical and tactical preparation for major games, and placed a heavy amount of the blame on Klinsmann’s coaching staff.

The situation – a reduced team uncomfortable with a new manager – is toxic.

Klinsmann was under pressure even before these gripes came to the public surface. Deepening tensions between Klinsmann’s German-American contingent of players and the older, established corps of veterans, was in evidence last year as the team struggled to make the final round of World Cup qualification. Moreover, while Klinsmann has been a relentlessly sunny presence – he is arguably the best ambassador for the game U.S. Soccer has ever had as manager – his players haven’t seemed as happy.

The benching of Carlos Bocanegra and the departure of Donovan from the sport for a sabbatical have similar roots: Klinsmann has been shaking up a team that reached a peak in 2002 in the Korea/Japan World Cup ten long years ago. The way he has gone about restructuring has exposed some old cliques in the squad, fostered others, and revealed that there is not as much depth in American soccer as the team’s fans had once thought.

Hanging over everything is an uncomfortable scenario: the Americans could be left without a single point three games into the ten-game Hexagonal – putting them in serious jeopardy of missing the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

What’s gone wrong is not easy to pinpoint: Klinsmann has shown some skill at motivating players – but less acumen at preparing them to play in big games. He has collected some feel-good wins, notably the upset of Mexico at the Azteca last August in a friendly; he has also seen the team stumble through some dire performances. February’s opener against Honduras was a dreadful 2-1 slog that was actually kind to the Americans.

Klinsmann posted a program-best record of 9-2-3 last season, and has challenged his players to take on more demanding assignments. Yet he has failed to live up to his promise of introducing a more fluid and technical game to the United States, often deploying a slew of defensive midfielders that strands a lone striker up top. Most troubling, the thing that was once the hallmark of the American team—hard work and heart – seems to be evaporating.

Klinsmann has long had a fair share of detractors who see him as more style than substance. While he is rightly credited for his work with the German national team in 2006, he was less successful at Bayern Munich, failing to last a season. Bayern star and national team captain Philipp Lahm was withering in his assessment of Klinsmann in a much-discussed book, dismissing him as a lightweight.

But it is also clear from a look at the current roster that Klinsmann doesn’t have much to work with. Whatever one thinks of MLS, the league has yet to provide a steady stream of top-level players able to compete on the international stage. Klisnmann has actually been more welcoming of domestic players than some previous managers of the team, but it is telling that of the four MLS defenders called up, only one of them, Omar Gonzalez, has been capped in a qualifier.

Of the international players the Americans have available, only two – Dempsey and Michael Bradley – are legitimate world talents. The rest are either emerging players in need of time, or journeymen who have enjoyed careers at smaller clubs. The depth is so poor that Klinsmann has been forced to reach back in time, restoring two seasoned players once thought long gone – Eddie Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley – to the roster.

Win or lose in Denver, the Americans are going to have to find some way to lift their spirits: they face Mexico at the Azteca on Tuesday the 26th. They have never won a World Cup qualifier there.