The real business of qualifying for the next World Cup may not get going until 2017, but the next 12 months are still shaping up to be crucial ones for the future of U.S. men’s national coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he looks to put 2015 behind him as quickly as possible.
It started with the U.S. completing a five-match winless streak — its longest since 2007 — and took in the team’s worst performance at a Gold Cup since 2000 as well as defeat at the hands of major rival Mexico in a playoff for the 2017 Confederations Cup.
The Americans finished 2015 with an uninspiring draw at Trinidad and Tobago in its second match of the penultimate round of qualifying for the World Cup. The criticisms have come thick and fast, most recently from U.S. women’s team striker Abby Wambach, who took a shot at him and his use of players born outside the U.S. ahead of her retirement Wednesday.
"I would definitely fire Jurgen [Klinsmann]," she told Bill Simmons’ podcast. "Sorry [U.S. Soccer Federation President] Sunil [Gulati], sorry, U.S. soccer, but I don't think Jurgen and this litmus test on him has worked. He hasn't really focused, I feel, enough attention on the youth programs. Although he says he has, I don't think that he has. The way that he has brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly. I don't believe in it. I don't believe in it in my heart."
Some young home-grown players are set to be given a chance to impress when Klinsmann announces his squad for the annual January camp. U.S. Soccer announced this week that those called up will face friendlies against Iceland and Canada. At the same time last year, Gyasi Zardes took the opportunity and has since become a regular feature in the team. With the core of the team — notably Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Tim Howard — well into their 30s, Klinsmann really needs some young players to impress similarly.
Following those friendlies will be the resumption of qualifying matches in March. While a group that includes Guatemala and minnows St. Vincent and the Grenadines shouldn’t pose a major threat to the U.S. making the final-round Hexagonal, Klinsmann needs to convince with the team’s performance in addition to their results.
The toughest test for Klinsmann, however, will arrive in the summer. That’s when the United States will host the Copa America Centenario, marking the 100th anniversary of South America’s flagship competition, and including all 10 Conmebol teams as well as six from Concacaf. On Thursday, it was announced that the U.S., along with Mexico, Argentina and Brazil, will be the four seeds for the competition, which will begin with the U.S. taking on unknown opponent June 3.
The level of opposition the U.S. will face — and the presumed competitive nature of the event — will be a valuable exercise for Klinsmann. But it will also be another means of assessing whether the U.S. is really any closer to the world’s elite teams than when he took over more than four years ago. Combined with an Olympic playoff against Colombia for the Under-23 team, which he has responsibility over as technical director, Klinsmann has much to prove in 2016.
USA 2016 confirmed schedule
Jan 31: vs. Iceland (Friendly, at StubHub Center, Carson, California)
Feb. 5: vs. Canada (Friendly, at StubHub Center, Carson, California)
March 25: at Guatemala (World Cup qualifier)
March 29: vs. Guatemala (World Cup qualifier)
June 3: vs. TBA (Copa America Centenario Group A, at Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, California)
June 7: vs. TBA (Copa America Centenario Group A, at Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois)
June 11: vs. TBA (Copa America Centenario Group A, at Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia)
Sep. 2: at St. Vincent and the Grenadines (World Cup qualifier)
Sep. 6: vs. Trinidad and Tobago (World Cup qualifier)