Friday night in Guatemala City, the U.S. men’s national team did something that it had not done since 1988—it lost to Guatemala. In a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on the road, the U.S. allowed the home squad to jump out to a quick 2-0 lead—one that it would not relinquish—and failed to find the back of the net in the heartbreaking 2-0 defeat. Now, with three games in the books in the group qualifying stage, the U.S. sits at 1-1-1 and in third place, behind Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala.
With a growing sense of urgency to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a lot of pressure has been placed on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to remedy the situation and get the U.S. back into the World Cup. But with recent lineup changes, confusing tactics and puzzling coaching decisions, it does not appear that Klinsmann is delivering on the expectations that he brought in 2011 when he took over the job. After last summer’s disappointing Gold Cup results and now the defeat at the hands of 95th ranked Guatemala—according to FIFA World Rankings—Klinsmann is in the hot seat, leading a U.S. national team “that is currently thrashing about, unsure of what it is or where it’s heading” (Carlisle, 2016).
Despite the mounting pressure, the U.S. head coach does not seem too worried about his job. After the loss Friday, Klinsmann took the blame for the poor performance on the field, but did not seem too concerned about his position at the helm:
“You question [decisions] every time, no matter if you win or lose, you question everything that happens during a game. Then you question yourself. ‘Was this the right lineup? Was this the right substitutions? Was this the right way to approach it? Should we have done something differently, and better,’” Klinsmann said. “I take the blame. There’s no problem if you want to hear that” (Carlisle, 2016).
And why should Klinsmann worry? According to United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, his head coach is in a solid position. If the team rebounds Tuesday in the second match against Guatemala, then Gulati believes that the team is back on track and Klinsmann is doing his job appropriately (Carlisle, 2016).
But should we let Jurgen off so easily? Should he be allowed to continue at the helm of a spiraling U.S. team that survived the “Group of Death” in 2014 and showed potential as an international competitor moving forward? As it stands right now, it does not appear so.
Going back to last summer, the U.S. suffered a 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the Gold Cup, before dropping the third-place match to Panama 3-2 on penalties. Since then, the team has gone on to lose 4-1 against Brazil, 3-2 to Mexico, 1-0 to Costa Rica and drew Trinidad and Tobago, all prior to the loss to Guatemala (ESPN FC, 2016).
Although the loss against Brazil and Mexico are excusable from an international perspective, the other losses bring to light the poor performance of Klinsmann’s squad in the past year. The U.S. men’s national team is the second-highest ranked team in CONCACAF at No. 30. The only team higher is Mexico, who sits at No. 22. But the problem is that the U.S. has lost or drew teams ranked well below them in the rankings. Jamaica sits at No. 52 in the latest poll, Panama is No. 55, Costa Rica is a more respectable No. 33, Trinidad and Tobago just cracks the top 50 at No. 49 and Guatemala sits at a measly No. 95 (FIFA, 2016). With such blemishes on his resume, it appears that Klinsmann should be more concerned about his job at this critical stage in the qualifying season.
Despite the losses, some suggest that the U.S. head coach should be given slack considering that his team lacks the talent of other top-notch international clubs; however, 12 current players listed on the team roster currently play in international leagues outside of the United States (U.S. Soccer, 2016). In the end, Klinsmann’s mismanagement of the team before and during games sheds light on the real problem that is his own tactics, rather than any lack of development in the U.S. roster.
In Friday’s loss, Klinsmann played a right back at right midfielder because he had a defensive midfielder playing in the right back position. All of this began because he had an attacking midfielder starting at defensive mid. With these sorts of lineup decisions, Klinsmann is constantly asking his players to play out of position to favor the nonsensical formations that he draws up (Starner, 2016). For example, during a 12-game winning streak in 2013, Klinsmann utilized a 4-2-3-1 formation that allowed the forwards to remain on the attack, while the midfielders created a central cluster that prevented too much pressure on the back line (Konty, 2013). Recently, however, Klinsmann has switched sporadically through formations, even using a 3-5-2 at points during the recent struggles, which have forced questionable placements.
In the particulars of the lineup, Klinsmann insists on playing Michael Orozco, despite the fact that Orozco does not garner much playing time for his own club, Tijuana, in Liga MX. The backline against Guatemala consisted of Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Orozco and Edgar Castillo—who had never played together before—and it showed on the pitch in the early goals and poor positioning on the field. Although injuries may have forced Klinsmann’s hand in a way, he still mismatched and mismanaged the overall efficacy of his players. With Klinsmann insisting that his squad can generate chances through defensive midfielders playing higher and leaving an unprepared backline to deal with opposing offensive assaults, the team seems to be spiraling further into a hole that it may not be able to dig itself out of in qualifying (Redford, 2016).
As a result, it seems that Gulati should begin to pay more attention to the issues at hand with Klinsmann, rather than ignoring the facts—he is poorly coaching an underperforming team in a crucial time of the year. Tuesday’s rematch with Guatemala might give an indication of where the team is headed in the future—either further down the rabbit hole or back into World Cup contention—but one match should not make up for the failures of the past year, especially when some have suggested to boycott games and ticket prices to send a message to the U.S. side (Usry, 2016).
One thing is for sure, though, if Jurgen Klinsmann does not step it up in the next several matches, his job will definitely be in question, especially if it means the U.S. faces elimination from World Cup qualifying, snapping its current seven-cup run for the first time since 1986 in Mexico.