What comes next for U.S. Soccer?
This terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Saturday for U.S. Soccer ended with Jurgen Klinsmann trying to process the fallout in the recesses of the Rose Bowl.
Klinsmann watched the U.S. under-23 team crater in an ugly 2-0 defeat to Honduras with a guaranteed Olympic berth at stake earlier in the day. Mexico defender Paul Aguilar compounded the misery by angling home his volley and sending the U.S. spiraling to a deserved 3-2 defeat after extra time.
In the span of several hours, the prospect of a Confederations Cup trip to Russia in 2017 disappeared and the potential trip to Rio for the Olympics next summer suddenly turned down a more treacherous path. It is not how Klinsmann or the federation imagined this day would unfold. And it left him grasping for a way forward as he simmered in those setbacks.
"A loss is always difficult to swallow, there's no doubt about it," Klinsmann said. "Especially when there is a lot at stake. It means you have to work harder than you ever did before in order to turn results around and make things happen. The Olympic team, they have to go the tough route. They have to beat Canada on Tuesday and they have to qualify against Colombia [in a one-off playoff in Rio in March]. And we have to get our group together and rethink the next couple of months."
There are some humbling truths to absorb during that period. Klinsmann remains tethered to his veterans because his protracted search for alternatives yielded precious few players capable of making the jump to the national team level. Those issues arise because the youth development structure struggles to identify, nurture and produce physically capable and technically proficient players with any semblance of scale.
As these pair of defeats painfully underscored, the creaking nature of the system leaves little room for error. Klinsmann bears blame for the current plight in his dual role as coach and technical director, though the overall results during his tenure justify his continued employment. He is ultimately responsible for the performance of the national team program and his teams have fallen short on major occasions over the past few months. He deserves scrutiny for his decisions and his performance in the job and there are questions whether he is getting the most of out the pieces at his disposal. In most countries, he would exit his post hastily after a run of poor results, but he boasts a long-term contract through the next World Cup and he enjoys the unwavering backing of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
Gulati's continued faith stems from his decision to intertwine his own tenure with Klinsmann long ago and a realistic assessment of the task at hand. Both men know the enduring and pervasive issues from top to bottom are complex in nature and systemic in constitution. The solution requires more than summoning one or two players into the senior side or switching coaches in response to painful rebukes. It is rooted in overhauling a convoluted, flawed structure to improve the underpinnings over the long haul. There are strides underway, but it is a long, arduous slog.
Those difficult truths often take a back seat to the latest quest for a savior or a scapegoat. It is easier to hope for salvation through some magical wave of the wand than examine the root causes. It is easier to cast blame than to take an honest survey regarding the caliber of player produced in the country. It is easier to point fingers than wonder why it is so difficult to scout potential contributors at an early age and shepherd them through a staggeringly haphazard and patchwork development phase.
Klinsmann and his players cannot afford to ruminate on these grand issues for too long with a friendly ahead against Costa Rica on Tuesday and a pair of World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Nov. 13 in St. Louis) and Trinidad and Tobago (Nov. 17). There are more instant, fundamental concerns to weigh as this team embarks upon a new cycle.
At this point, the questions revolve around the constitution of the side going forward. There is a desperate need for energy and ideas to complement core players like Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson, but there is a need for some stability as well. After all, there is not a surplus of options at Klinsmann's disposal. There are some difficult decisions to make as players reach the autumn or the winter of their careers, but there is also the balance to strike between molding a team capable of success in 2018 and sorting out the immediate hurdles ahead.
"We're going to go into World Cup qualifying in November and we have to sit together and discuss things," Klinsmann said. "Who are we counting on? How do we build toward the next couple of games? There isn't much time in between. A World Cup qualifier is a World Cup qualifier. It's for both teams -- Mexico as well. There will be a lot of conversations coming up the next couple of days."
Most of those talks include creating the vision of how this side will look in the future. The present -- including the penchant for sitting deeply, soaking up pressure and waiting for an opportunity to appear on the counter or a set piece -- reflects the available options and yet it sits awkwardly for a manager who promised much, much more.
At the very least, U.S. Soccer is certainly expected to meet a standard higher than a third- or fourth-place finish in Olympic qualifying and a fourth-place finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer. There are two giants in the region, but one of them is underperforming after years of punching above its weight given the talent at its disposal.
This humbling summer and dismal Saturday reinforced the need to assess how and why those problems emerge. It is the only way to march onwards and ensure such a miserable day does not unfold again any time soon.
"We have to," U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. "We can't look back. You can't change the past. You can't dwell on results that haven't gone your way. You have to find a way to move forward. It's our job as players, along with the staff, along with everyone involved with this, to keep pushing each other and keep fighting when we represent our country. That's what it's about."