SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica — It’s time for Jurgen Klinsmann to go.
Whether the U.S. men’s national team coach’s boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, ends up agreeing with that opinion remains to be seen. But Gulati certainly didn’t give Klinsmann a clear vote of confidence in the moments after the U.S.’s dumpster-fire 4-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica on Tuesday.
“We won’t make any decisions right after games,” said Gulati inside the Estadio Nacional as red-clad Tico fans celebrated with glee outside. “We’ll think about what happened today and talk with Jurgen and look at the situation. Obviously it’s not a good start to the Hex, and today in particular was not a good performance.”
The U.S. was putrid across the board in the second half, conceding three of the four goals and failing to execute on basic defensive aspects like putting pressure on crosses and marking the recipients of those crosses closely. The midfield gave the ball away too easily. John Brooks, Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler and Omar González all had poor games, but this was a total team effort when it came to the failure.
Did some U.S. players quit on Klinsmann in the second half? It's not 100% clear, but the fact that question needs to be asked says a lot in itself.
Here are the facts: The U.S. is in last place in the 10-game CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal with zero points from the first two games—the first time the U.S. has ever lost the opening two games of the Hex (covering a span of six World Cup cycles).
Thanks to the comically forgiving tournament format, the U.S. still isn’t in any acute danger yet of missing World Cup 2018. Four of the six CONCACAF teams are likely to make Russia 2018, the top three automatically and the fourth in a playoff exactly one year from now against the fifth-place team from Asia. (Have you ever visited Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates in November? Well, the U.S. might get that chance.)
How low is the bar for qualifying for Russia 2018 from the Hex? Well, keep in mind that Mexico won just two of 10 Hexagonal games in 2013—two of 10!—and still qualified for World Cup 2014. So it’s possible to say now that the U.S. is playing historically bad soccer to start the Hex, and yet chances are still good that the Americans will reach the World Cup.
“When you lose two games, there’s obviously some concern,” Gulati said. “But Mexico qualified [for 2014] with 11 points. There’s a lot of points left on the board, 24 to be exact. As I’ve said the last two cycles, the sequence of games matters a lot, and we’ve had what one would consider our two toughest opponents early … I’d be more concerned if we didn’t have any points and it was some of the other opponents.”
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The conventional wisdom has always held that Klinsmann would only be fired if and when the U.S. was eliminated from qualifying for World Cup 2018. But now the calculus has changed.
It’s time for him to go because Klinsmann set up his team to fail against Mexico with a major formation switch that should have been tested first in a game with lower stakes, a formation switch that left his players unsure and disjointed as a unit. It’s time for him to go because the U.S. was not just beaten but overmatched against Costa Rica, and it’s a giant red flag anytime you’re wondering if the players have quit on their coach.
It’s time for him to go because you can imagine other coaches, including realistic replacements like Bruce Arena, getting more out of the same players than Klinsmann is for a paycheck in excess of $3 million a year. And it’s time for him to go when the captain, Michael Bradley, says other teams have a “clear idea” of what they’re being asked to do, one implication being that the U.S. does not.
Is Klinsmann the right coach to lead this U.S. team forward?
“We’ll sit down tomorrow and look at things,” said Gulati.
When asked if the results against Mexico and Costa Rica will influence the way he examines the coaching situation, Gulati replied: “Well, do facts matter? The answer is yes. It’s simple. The analysis is always different based on results and what you see. It’s not specific to the coaching situation, it’s just in general. It would be the equivalent of asking Jurgen, ‘Is your view of all the players different today than it was four days ago?’ Of course it would be when you lose two games.”
After the U.S.’s 3-2 loss to Mexico in October 2015 capped a miserable year-plus following the World Cup, we suggested that U.S. Soccer would be better off letting Klinsmann keep his job as U.S. men’s technical director and bringing in another person to coach the team.
That idea still makes sense. Klinsmann is a big-picture guy whose talents lie in formulating a long-term plan. But I also think such a move is unrealistic, both on Klinsmann’s end (it's doubtful he would accept such a demotion) and on that of a new coach (who would be doubtful to accept the job with Klinsmann still hanging around).
After Tuesday’s game, Klinsmann called it the most painful loss of his five-year tenure as the U.S. coach. But does he still think he’s the right coach to lead the U.S. team forward?
“I think so,” he said. “But I obviously understand when you lose two games, and especially two World Cup qualifiers right after each other, that there will be a lot of your comments. That is just part of the job. It’s part of the game. I told the team at the end, the last cycle we lost here too, so we gave away these three points here as well. We didn’t give away the three points at home against Mexico, so now we are three points behind what we did in the last cycle, and we won the group with 22 points at the end of the day.”
“We know we have to come back right away in March against Honduras at home and then away [at Panama].”
The crazy thing: If the U.S. were to beat Honduras 3-0 at home in their next qualifier in March, the U.S. would probably be in fourth place—and the fourth place team from CONCACAF is likely to make the World Cup.
But the four months that stand between now and March would be plenty of time for a coach to come in and get familiar with everything needed to move forward with the U.S. team. Arena is no stranger to World Cup qualifying, and his contract with the LA Galaxy is set to end next month.
Arena would help the U.S. rediscover an identity, one that has eluded this team since the end of World Cup 2014. It’s time to thank Klinsmann for his work. He got the U.S. out of a difficult World Cup 2014 group, and he steered the Americans to the Copa América semifinals this year. He did a terrific job recruiting dual-nationals and spotting prospects like Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris. Klinsmann also happens to be a really good guy and a World Cup-winning legend as a player.
But it’s time for him to go.