Over 10 matches as a player and a coach, Jurgen Klinsmann has never come out on the losing end against Mexico. Included among those contests is a World Cup knockout match when he was leading the attack for Germany, as well as World Cup qualifiers during his time charge of the United States. On the face of it, his latest meeting with El Tri on Saturday, when a place in the often-derided Confederations Cup will be on the line in a match given the artificially hyped-up title of the Concacaf Cup, won’t be up there among some of those high-stakes matchups. Yet, increasingly, the game is turning into a defining moment of Klinsmann’s U.S. reign.
There has been no indication that those with the ultimate power that Klinsmann’s job will be under any serious pressure should the U.S. fall to Mexico at a sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on Saturday. Ahead of last year’s World Cup, the German was handed a lucrative long-term contract to take him through the 2018 World Cup and that also gave him the substantial additional power of being the program’s technical director. The U.S. Soccer Federation went all in with the former star player with a global reputation who they had long chased to be their figurehead.
But, even if Klinsmann isn’t actually under pressure from his bosses, there is a growing feeling that he should be.
Landon Donovan is clearly someone with no love lost for Klinsmann. It was after all Klinsmann that denied the man regarded as the United States’ greatest ever soccer player a chance for a last gloried moment on the big stage at the 2014 World Cup. Yet, regardless of the motivation behind them, it would be hard to dispute the validity of Donovan’s widely shared comments about Klinsmann this week.
“Around the world, if a player plays poorly and a player has a bad string of results, they get dropped from the team,” he told ESPN FC. “Jurgen said many times that he wants our players to feel pressure -- so if they lose a game they can't go to the grocery store the next day. If they lose a game, they are getting hammered in the press.
“Well, the same holds true for the coach, and so we had a very poor summer with bad results in the Gold Cup. The last game against Brazil was probably the worst game I've seen them play under Jurgen.
“The reality is that now, anywhere else in the world, if this coach had those results, and they lose this game against Mexico, they'd be fired.”
What happened at the Gold Cup, when the U.S. failed to impress throughout and then was stunningly upset against Jamaica in the semifinals before going on to lose the third-place playoff against Panama, was an unmitigated failure. A 4-1 capitulation against Brazil at Gillette Stadium last month offered no signs of encouragement.
While Klinsmann can point to friendly wins over the Netherlands and Germany, his team has lost its way amid constant experimentation since the last World Cup. Against Mexico, sensing the importance of the fixture, Klinsmann has gone back to the tried and tested. The squad he has chosen has an average age of over 29. The team that takes the field in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl is likely to have the same spine as in Brazil -- Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey in attack, Michael Bradley and Jermain Jones in midfield and Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron at the back. If Klinsmann cannot get a coherent performance out of those players then he really is in trouble heading into the start of World Cup qualifying.
Mexico may also have a lineup familiar to their World Cup outings last year, despite a typically tumultuous past few months. Amid unconvincing performances and controversial officiating calls, El Tri somehow lifted this summer’s Gold Cup title to seemingly save the job of Miguel Herrera. Yet just hours later, the colorful coach gave it all away when he was accused of assaulting a commentator ahead of boarding a flight.
In his place came Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, but only on a four-game interim basis. With Juan Carlos Osorio announcing this week he will be the man to take the reins on a permanent basis, Ferretti’s short-lived reign will end after Tuesday’s friendly against Panama. But he still has a chance to leave an indelible mark with a victory over El Tri’s great rival to secure a place at the Confederations Cup -- a competition with which Mexico has always had a strong association.
His second game in charge provided encouraging signs that he can do just that. Reverting to the 5-3-2 and much of the same personnel that had served Herrera so well, especially last year in Brazil, Mexico had the upper hand on World Cup runners-up Argentina for much of their friendly encounter in Texas. Pressing well and then taking their chances on the break, Mexico deservedly held a 2-0 lead before the brilliance of Lionel Messi and Sergio Agüero clawed Argentina level late on.
But it still uncertain whether Ferretti will be able to deploy the same approach at the Rose Bowl. Firstly, there is the obvious factor that the U.S. is a very different opponent to Argentina and may sit back to force Mexico to make the attacking running, something it hasn’t always been comfortable doing.
And then there are some key fitness concerns. Already the man who would have shielded the defense, José Juan Vázquez, has pulled out with a calf injury. Coupled with the fact that veteran defensive leader Rafa Márquez is struggling to be fit, Ferretti could be tempted into switching to four at the back. Up front his options have also been limited but the withdrawal of LA Galaxy forward Giovani dos Santos.
Prediction: The fitness of Márquez could well be key to the outcome of the contest. He may be aged 36, but he still has a powerful effect on this Mexico team, in both organizing the defense and playmaking from the back. He is the only player that can excel at the center of three center-backs to give Mexico the chance to play a formation that provides its best chance of victory. If El Tri can play as it did against Argentina, then it has the superior quality, particularly in the final third, to secure victory. Perhaps the United States’ best chance is to sit back and look to frustrate Mexico. If Klinsmann’s side can do that and his experienced players thrive the U.S. is certainly capable of getting a narrow win. But some of that old resilience appears to have been diluted under Klinsmann and that could allow Mexico’s greater technical talent to shine through.
Predicted score: Mexico 2-1 USA