Having lost its defining match of 2015, the United States and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must now begin the recovery and the preparations for World Cup qualifying against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, on Tuesday evening. While the facts state that the U.S. lost a nail-biter in extra time to Mexico in Saturday’s Confederations Cup playoff at the Rose Bowl, the reality of what happened during the 120 minutes was far more concerning for the team and its coach.
Seen by many as a referendum on Klinsmann’s tenure, the U.S. showed scant signs of progress from its last match before the German coach took charge, against the same opponents and at the same venue in the 2011 Gold Cup final. On the back foot for almost the entire match, the U.S. failed to hold meaningful possession or play in a proactive fashion -- the two elements that Klinsmann has made it his priority to introduce since taking the reins.
Adding further concern about the USA’s prospects going forward was the age of the lineup that Klinsmann still clearly considers his first-choice for the big occasion. The 11 players that started in Pasadena, California, have an average age of more than 29. Six are over the age of 30. Qualifying for the next World Cup in Russia begins for the United States next month, but it is doubtful how many of those will be around in three years’ time. Coupled with a 2-0 defeat for the U.S. Under-23s against its Honduras counterparts earlier on Saturday to leave its hopes of qualifying for the Olympics hanging by a thread, it was not a good day for U.S. soccer. Klinsmann, as both the coach of the senior side and the technical director, is under pressure for both failures.
Still, given how much faith the U.S. Soccer Federation has invested in the former Germany star player and coach, both in his dual role and a lucrative contract that runs through until 2018, he was never going to pay for them with his job. And, despite also overseeing the U.S. team's worst performance at a Gold Cup in 15 years this summer, Klinsmann remains undeterred.
“I don't need to say anything to them,” he said after the defeat of those who have called for him to lose his job. “Everybody can express his opinion, and not everybody likes you. That's totally fine. I'm not here to be liked. I'm trying to do a good job and I'm privileged to have that role and represent the U.S. soccer program.”
Tuesday’s friendly contest with Costa Rica in truth matters little. But Klinsmann needs all the positive results and performances he can get right now. There will already be changes for the game, with eight players being sent back to their Major League Soccer clubs, including five of the starters against Mexico -- Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley. In their place Brek Shea and Mix Diskerud, both of whom may feel they have something to prove after their exclusion from the original squad, have been called up, along with Lee Nguyen, Bill Hamid and German-born striker Andrew Wooten.
Among the numerous alterations to the starting lineup could well be the inclusion of DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood. The two 22-year-olds combined for their team’s extra-time equalizer against Mexico and are among those who will be hoping for regular starting berths going forward.
There is much to ponder for Klinsmann, but he may at least take some comfort from the identity of his team’s opponent. Previous to this current spell, the last time Klinsmann was under so much pressure was after a 2-1 defeat in Honduras in the team’s opening match of the final round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. That the loss was accompanied by a damming article featuring anonymous quotes from U.S. players criticizing Klinsmann’s coaching style only exacerbated the scrutiny on him. Yet in the very next game, the U.S. edged out Costa Rica in a memorable match in the Colorado snow and went onto finish top of the Hexagonal en route to Brazil.
Costa Rica was left bitter that day, but had the last laugh in Brazil, when going all the way to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time. Things have not been plain sailing for the Ticos since, however. The country has struggled to replace the mastermind of its World Cup success, Jorge Luis Pinto, and, after a disappointing quarterfinal exit at the Gold Cup and then getting into a bizarre fight in the stands at an Olympic qualifying match, Paulo Wanchope resigned as coach in August. Former Costa Rica international Oscar Ramirez is now the man in charge, although he has lost two of his first three matches in charge, including a 1-0 defeat to South Africa last Thursday.
Prediction: It is unlikely to be a thrilling spectacle at Red Bull Arena. The U.S. will be much changed from the weekend but still hardly on a high, while Costa Rica have little to play for. The expected changes in defense for the U.S. could make the team vulnerable, but Costa Rica is far from a free-flowing attacking side. A low-scoring draw could be on the cards.
Predicted score: USA 1-1 Costa Rica