On Saturday night in the Rose Bowl, the United States men’s national team will play its most important match of 2015. Jurgen Klinsmann — and for better or worse, this is absolutely, 100 percent Jurgen Klinsmann’s team — will lead the Stars and Stripes into a game against archrival Mexico. The winner of the ridiculously named CONCACAF Cup earns the right to play in the 2017 Confederations Cup, an eight-team World Cup warm-up in Russia.
Depending on how wide your lens is, this games means nothing and it means everything.
Playing in the Confed Cup will have little, if any, bearing on how well the Americans will fare the following year when President Putin welcomes the planet to the 2018 World Cup. Of course, there are benefits. At worst, it’s three non-friendly matches against high-level competition and a chance for the Americans to familiarize themselves with Cyrillic and post-match vodka shots, which should be a Russian tradition if they are not already. With a little luck, the red, white, and blue could make a run similar to 2009, when they beat world no. 1 Spain in the semis and nearly took down Brazil in the final. Those games were some of the most memorable matches the U.S. has played this century, but as far as furthering the goal of winning America’s first World Cup goes, the Confederations Cup is far from necessary.
Although the reward is not quite as great as the expected sold-out crowd of 90,000 might suggest, Saturday’s performance and result will either reset or reaffirm the current state of the USMNT and its manager. The team is playing in this game only because of a disastrous Gold Cup performance this summer.1 Then there was an uninspiring win over Peru and a listless loss to Brazil that demonstrated the vast gulf between the respective squads’ skill levels, and now the general sense is that, despite summer victories over Germany and the Netherlands, the team has been, at best, treading water since the 2014 World Cup. A loss to Mexico — which would be Coach Klinsmann’s first in six matches against the southern neighbor — would push us, if not to the Night of the Long Knives, then at least to DEFCON 2.
The U.S. would’ve automatically qualified for the 2017 Confed Cup had it won the 2015 Gold Cup, since it had already won the 2013 Gold Cup. Yes, this is unnecessarily confusing.
Who knew that getting left off the 2014 World Cup roster would be the best thing that could have happened to Donovan’s post-playing career? The onetime pariah, Mr. “Landycakes,” is now the voice of reason for the growing anti-Klinsmann segment of the U.S. fan base.
Jurgen said many times 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. I think if Jurgen wants to hold all the players to that standard, then he has to be held to that standard too.
Right or wrong, it’s telling that Donovan, a smart, media-savvy ex-pro who understood exactly the type of response his controversial statement would cause, felt the need and the confidence to go on the record anyway. Even with a loss, Klinsmann isn’t going anywhere other than back to his U.S. Soccer office at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. However, he does need to start taking responsibility for the state of his team rather than blaming his players, the refs, the field conditions, the phases of the moon — everything and everyone except the coach.
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A U.S. victory on Saturday night renders the conversation about responsibility moot, or at least quiets it until the next inevitable stumble. It’s a game the Americans can, and probably should, win. Mexico doesn’t have a full-time manager, as Tigres coach Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti is overseeing the proceedings this weekend until Juan Carlos Osorio arrives to take over until he’s inevitably fired before the next World Cup. Giovani dos Santos, the man who put the final nail in Bob Bradley’s coffin four years ago, will miss the match after hurting himself on the artificial surface at CenturyLink Field during last Sunday night’s Los Angeles Galaxy–Seattle Sounders game. Captain Andrés Guardado, by far the best player at the Gold Cup, is only just returning from an injury,3 as is former captain and perpetual lightning rod Rafa Marquez, who is 36 years old.
He apparently spent his recovery training to be an architect.
Klinsmann’s squad has a few injury issues of its own, and John Brooks’s absence would appear to be the biggest. But this might also be addition by subtraction. While the 22-year-old could (read: could) be the center back of the future, he struggles to remain focused for entire matches. That’s not the best quality to have, especially against an opportunistic Mexican team, when you’re the last guy between an attacker and your keeper. Expect Matt Besler, who was good enough to start all four games at the World Cup in Brazil but not so much since, to take Brooks’s spot. The other center back spot is up for grabs. In his typical “Is he throwing shit at the wall?” fashion, Klinsmann left Omar Gonzalez off the roster.4 The choices are Geoff Cameron, Ventura Alvarado, and Michael Orozco. The former is the experienced, steady, and — some would say — obvious choice, but Klinsmann has avoided Cameron before, so it’s likely down to Alvarado, who isn’t playing for his club team and suffers from the same issues as Brooks, or Orozco, who continues to earn chances despite never playing particularly well at any level.
As well as Scandinavian-born darlings Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson.
Elsewhere, Klinsmann has almost the entirety of his first-choice lineup for the first time in months. Hell, he has two top-class goalkeepers in Brad Guzan, who Klinsmann has said will get the start, and Tim Howard, who’s been back to form with Everton. Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley, who has been in and out of retirement over the past year, should occupy the fullback roles. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will anchor the midfield, supported by some combination of Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, and DeAndre Yedlin. Put Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey up top and you have yourself a capable starting XI.
The Americans didn’t want to have to play in this game. But here they are. If this roster can’t get a win against its biggest rival in the most important match of the year, Klinsmann has no more excuses.