It wasn’t exactly the way Jürgen Klinsmann envisioned celebrating his four-year anniversary in charge of the United States men’s national team. Just a week shy of marking the day he replaced Bob Bradley after the U.S. lost the 2011 Gold Cup final to Mexico, Klinsmann watched on as his team stunningly crashed out of the Concacaf championship to Jamaica in the semifinals. These facts alone mean that the German’s reign is now coming under more scrutiny than ever before.
First-half goals from Darren Mattocks and Giles Barnes proved an insurmountable hurdle for the U.S. to overcome in Atlanta on Wednesday, with Michael Bradley’s response in the second half failing to spark a revival. Now rather than take on Mexico in Sunday’s final for a chance to retain its Gold Cup crown and earn a direct path to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, the U.S. will be left scrapping it out with Panama for the dubious honor of third place.
To listen to Klinsmann after the Georgia Dome defeat, though, there was little to cause long-term concern.
“It was a very, very good performance,” he said, according to the U.S. Soccer website. “I really told them at halftime as well, ‘Just keep playing like that, you’re going to get opportunities and sooner or later you’re going to put them in the net and we’re going to turn this game around.’ We lost this game with two set pieces that we conceded. It’s as simple as that.”
There perhaps was an element of it being a freak result. Jamaica scored off a long throw and a free-kick, which was only awarded when Brad Guzan committed the rarely punished transgression of stepping marginally outside of his penalty area with the ball. Meanwhile, the U.S. dominated Jamaica in both possession and chances created.
Defensive Experimentation Costly
But to focus only on those facts would be to ignore far wider issues. Taking the tournament as a whole, the U.S. only put together a complete performance against a depleted and vastly inferior Cuba side. And against Jamaica Klinsmann’s decision to persevere with the young center-back partnership of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado spectacularly backfired. Brooks was at fault when being beaten in the air by Mattocks for Jamaica’s crucial opening goal, and both he and Alvarado had been susceptible to errors throughout the competition.
Klinsmann has continued to back the two 22-year-olds, predicting that they will become excellent defenders. But this was no place for experimenting, even if Klinsmann was adamant that “they deserve to play the Gold Cup.” It was the curious thing about Klinsmann’s squad selection for this tournament that he largely eschewed the experimentation that had characterized his approach since last year’s World Cup, even bringing 33-year-old DaMarcus Beasley out of retirement for the knockout stage. Yet when it came to the position that arguably requires more dependability and experience than any other, he had at least one eye on the future rather than the present. Despite Klinsmann protesting to the contrary, it would be difficult to argue against either Omar Gonzalez, watching on from the bench, or Matt Besler, watching on at home, being far more secure options for the here and now.
The decision was symptomatic of Klinsmann’s desire to look far and wide for players who may one day be capable of helping the U.S. fulfill his ambition of being a proactive playing major player on the world stage, but often ignoring the quality that sits closer to home.
Has Klinsmann made the U.S. better?
Of course his mindset also brings plenty of positives to the role. Klinsmann’s bold, outward looking vision ensures that there is never any room for complacency in a still developing soccer nation. And his ability to recruit dual nationals who might previously have slipped away could well pay major dividends in the years to come
Still, the defeat to Jamaica brings into question whether in on-the-pitch terms, the team is actually any better off than when he took over. His greatest achievements so far have been friendly wins in Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, but none of those defeated European powerhouses would have lost much sleep about the result.
Even the much-mentioned success of escaping from the “group of death” at the 2014 World Cup has significant caveats in the implosion of Ghana, non-appearance of the injured Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal team and that fact that the U.S. was outplayed for the majority of its three matches. By the end the U.S. suffered an extra time defeat in the Round of 16, the same result as Bradley achieved four years earlier.
There is little evidence, either, that the U.S. is playing the more proactive style Klinsmann has repeatedly insisted is his mission to install since taking over. Maintaining possession remains a real challenge for a team which has often appeared caught between two stones -- one of relying on its traditional resilience and counter-punching qualities and the other of imposing itself on the opposition.
For large periods the U.S. struggled effectively to do the latter against a Jamaica team that was always going to be well organized and set up to hit on the counter. And that brings Klinsmann’s other main question mark into the spotlight: whether, for all his admirable big philosophical talk, he actually has the tactical nous to give his team the best chance of winning on any given day. It is a question that has dogged Klinsmann since his time in charge of Germany, when assistant Joachim Low, who secured the World Cup title last year, was credited for much of the tactical work, and at Bayern Munich, where he stumbled after less than a season.
Despite the U.S. failing to make the final of a Gold Cup for the first time since 2003, there is very little prospect of Klinsmann being dismissed in the immediate future. And it would be difficult to make a case that there is any real value doing so at this point in time, with the team hardly in crisis. The U.S. Soccer Federation has given Klinsmann every backing imaginable since giving him the reins, including in 2013 handing him a contract through the 2018 World Cup and making him the technical director.
Perhaps he will attract some scrutiny from his bosses were the U.S. to fail to win the October playoff for a place in the Confederations Cup against Mexico or Jamaica. But in reality only a serious endangering of the team’s chances of qualifying for the next World Cup is likely to see his position come under huge threat. There is, though, now undoubtedly mounting pressure on the former striker to start showing real signs that he is truly delivering on his grand plans.