The United States will begin its preparations for World Cup qualifying when taking on Costa Rica in a friendly at New Jersey’s Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night, but the team and coach Jurgen Klinsmann can’t yet escape the fallout from Saturday’s crushing defeat to Mexico. In the Americans’ most important match of the year, a playoff for the 2017 Confederations Cup and a battle for superiority in the Concacaf region, the U.S. was outplayed and eventually beaten 3-2 in extra time at the Rose Bowl.
And the focus of criticism since has honed in on Klinsmann. Already under pressure after overseeing the USA’s worst Gold Cup performance in 15 years this summer, he is now unquestionably going through his roughest stretch since taking charge in 2011. Yet the former Germany striker and coach has steadfastly refused to turn the burden of responsibility on himself. And, after blaming refereeing controversies at the Gold Cup, on Monday he appeared to identify a target for the failure against Mexico.
Not only was Fabian Johnson exiled from the squad ahead of the match against Costa Rica, but Klinsmann claimed that the Borussia Mönchengladbach man had shown a lack of commitment when asking to come off during extra time against Mexico complaining of muscle tightness.
“I had a very severe word with Fabian Johnson, and I sent him home today,” Klinsmann said. “He can rethink his approach about his team.
“He said he couldn't go anymore and I reacted to it and obviously and made the substitution. He just feared to possibly get an injury, but he was not injured in that moment. He got all stiffened up. It's a muscle issue. It's normal."
"In a situation like that, it's little things that often make a difference.”
Given that the announcement about Johnson came a day after eight other players had been sent back to their clubs, it appeared a clear attempt to single Johnson out. And given the negative attention Klinsmann has received since Saturday, many will view it as a very public scapegoating. Whatever the motivation, the move is only likely to add credence to the view espoused by former U.S. star Landon Donovan ahead of the Mexico match that Klinsmann fails to accept the same level of accountability he has made it his mission to introduce to his players.
It is not the first time he has publicly called out one of his players, and Klinsmann is now playing a risky game with his squad’s trust. Thus, while the match against Costa Rica itself counts for nothing, the reaction from his players will be eagerly watched. And the contest also marks the true start of looking ahead to the next World Cup in Russia.
Six of the players who started against Mexico were over the age of 30, meaning younger blood needs to be infused. After Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Chris Wondolowski and Nick Rimando were allowed to depart, five players will get a chance to state their case for involvement when the World Cup qualifiers start next month. Brek Shea, Andrew Wooten, Lee Nguyen, Mix Diskerud and Bill Hamid are those who have been called up with a point to prove.
The U.S. team’s opponents in Harrison on Tuesday know all about coaching difficulties. Costa Rica enjoyed the best moment in its soccer history at the 2014 World Cup when Jorge Luis Pinto led the team all the way to the quarterfinals. But after a failure to agree a new contract with the Colombian, Costa Rica has struggled. Former striker Paulo Wanchope led the team through 10 winless games, including a quarterfinal exit at the Gold Cup, before resigning after getting into a fight while in the stands watching an Olympics qualifying match.
It is now the job of former Costa Rica international Óscar Ramírez to lead the Ticos through a tough World Cup qualifying group that includes Gold Cup finalists Jamaica, semifinalists Panama as well as Haiti. The team has scored just once, in a 1-0 win over Uruguay last month, since Ramírez took the reins, with 1-0 defeats suffered against Brazil and, last Thursday, South Africa.
Kickoff time: 6:55 p.m. EDT
TV channel: ESPN, UniMás, Univision Deportes