When Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed the United States men’s national team coach in 2011, his task was to make the team a true contender on soccer’s biggest stage and his stated objective was to reach a World Cup semifinal. Yet five years on he now faces the very real possibility of his tenure coming to an inglorious end in a qualifier against the world’s 95th-ranked side in Columbus, Ohio. What should have been a nondescript match against Guatemala in just the penultimate round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying is now anything but.
Anything short of a victory on Tuesday and the U.S. will be in the unthinkable situation of going into the final two matches of the group with their hopes of progressing to the six-team final round “Hexagonal” quite possibly dependent on goal difference and other results going their way. While the U.S. could still survive to prevent a first ever failure to make it into the Hexagonal, Klinsmann may not.
Already the former Germany coach came into these qualifiers under growing scrutiny after an annus horribilis for the U.S. national team in 2015. Having performed poorly at the Gold Cup and suffering an ignominious semifinal exit to Jamaica, the U.S. then lost to Mexico in a playoff for the Confederations Cup. Many national associations may well have dispensed with their coach after such failures. Yet Klinsmann and his hefty contract survived, with the understanding that his job would only really be at threat if the same was true for the team’s place at Russia in 2018.
A calamitous 2-0 defeat in Guatemala City on Friday evening, the United States’ first ever loss to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying, means that could soon be the case.
“Obviously we came back not with the result we wanted in Guatemala,” Klinsmann said ahead of Tuesday’s contest. “It makes the situation very clear: We need to win this game. There's a sense of urgency around tomorrow night because we need to get three points now.”
Despite the alarm bells, in terms of results, the U.S. has experienced and survived exactly this scenario before. Four years ago, the team again had just four points from three games in the semifinal round of qualifying, on that occasion following a loss in Jamaica, but four days later beat the Reggae Boyz, in Columbus, to set themselves on the road to the Hexagonal and qualification for Brazil.
Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that the situation this time around is more precarious. Not only has there been a downward trend since the 2014 World Cup, but the shambolic nature of the team’s defeat in Guatemala only bred more negativity. Beaten by two simple set-piece goals inside the first 15 minutes, the U.S. failed to play with much urgency or coherence. And not for the first time, Klinsmann’s selections and his predilection for deploying players out of their best position came into sharp focus.
But while the focus in the U.S. is on potential disaster, for Guatemala there is the chance for one of the most significant achievements in the team’s history. Never before has the Central American nation qualified for a World Cup, and it hasn’t even made the Hexagonal since 2006 qualifying.
The Chapines will be boosted on Tuesday by having Carlos Ruiz available. The veteran striker, who scored the second goal against the U.S. last week, was initially feared to have been unable to travel because of a rent dispute at home in Guatemala. But he, along with defender Hamilton Lopez, who reportedly had visa issues, has made the trip to Ohio.
Prediction: This is a match that the United States really should win without undue fuss. But the sudden pressure on the team coupled with the complete lack of cohesiveness and intensity it played with on Friday means nothing can be taking for granted. Despite his stubborn mindset, Klinsmann will surely alter his lineup and put more players in their natural positions. That should be enough to secure victory, although there could well be some nervy moments along the way.
Predicted score: USA 1-0 Guatemala
Kickoff time: 7:25 p.m. EDT
TV channel: ESPN2, Univision Deportes, UniMás