Answering big questions raised by USA's stunning defeat to Jamaica
ATLANTA — So you’ve got questions, and we’ve got answers after the U.S.’s stunning 2–1 loss to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals on Wednesday night. Let’s dive in:
1) Was it really the biggest upset loss in U.S. men’s soccer history?
To me it was. In an elimination game that mattered, the U.S. lost on home soil to a Caribbean team for the first time since a 1–0 loss to Haiti in 1969. Jamaica is the 76th-ranked team in the world. The U.S., ranked 34th, had never been eliminated in the Gold Cup before by a CONCACAF team other than Mexico. What’s more, even though the Gold Cup takes place once every two years, only one every four years has the best A-teams from the region. This tournament is one of those.
Keep in mind, though, the U.S. has only improved to the point that it’s a true regional heavyweight in the last 15 to 20 years. As a result, there aren’t that many candidates for biggest upset loss in history.
The 2–1 loss to Iran in World Cup ’98 certainly had higher stakes than Wednesday’s game, but if the U.S. and Iran had played 10 times I’m not sure that U.S. team would have won a majority of the games.
The U.S. lost 3–2 at home to Honduras in a World Cup qualifier in 2001, but while that game also had higher stakes than this one, World Cup qualifiers tend to have more wiggle room than a one-off elimination game in a knockout tournament. (That U.S. team still qualified for World Cup ’02 and made the quarterfinals.)
2) Is Jurgen Klinsmann’s job in danger?
Not yet, in my opinion. When you compare this situation to that of his predecessor, Bob Bradley, it’s true that Bradley was fired in 2011 after winning the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying hexagonal, leading the U.S. to the World Cup Round of 16 and then losing to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Klinsmann did all of those things, except he didn’t even get to the Gold Cup final.
But what’s different now? Well, Klinsmann is being paid about five times as much as Bradley was, for one thing. He appears to have more support from his boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. And there also isn’t a clear replacement looming over everything the way Klinsmann was always a specter for Bradley.
That said, if the U.S. loses the October playoff game (against the winner of this Gold Cup) for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, then Klinsmann could find himself in some real hot water.
That game will also take place in the United States, and losing two elimination games on home soil in the span of a few months would put significant pressure on the coach.
The loss to Jamaica was “very disappointing, very frustrating,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said on Wednesday night. “But it’s sports. We have no divine right to be in the final. We certainly didn’t think that. We knew from the get-go that this was going to be an extremely difficult tournament. It was. And we’ll continue to move ourselves forward, to push to improve.
“It’s disappointing not to get ourselves to a final, but we’ve earned our way into the playoff in October for the Confederations Cup berth. So we’ll let these other teams battle it out, and whoever it is, come October we’ll be ready to play a big game to get ourselves to that tournament.”
3) Why is the Confederations Cup that important?
It’s a fair question. The trophy itself is hardly the be-all, end-all of soccer, and it’s worth noting that Brazil has won the last three Confederations Cup titles, only to fail to win the World Cup the year after in every case.
But for a team like the U.S., it certainly helps to be able to play against some of the world’s best national teams in competitive games. What’s more, Klinsmann believes it’s extremely helpful to visit the country hosting the World Cup and get the experience of playing and being on the ground there a year before the Main Event.
That’s why he organized a U.S. team visit to Brazil months before World Cup 2014, where the delegation stayed at the same hotel it’d be based at during the World Cup.
Given the logistics challenges that Russia provides, you can understand why Klinsmann wants the Confed Cup berth. But if they don’t get it, don’t be surprised to see the Americans take a trip to Russia anyway before the 2018 tournament.
4) What needs to improve for the U.S. between now and the October playoff?
Quite a bit. Aside from a 6–0 laugher against overmatched Cuba, the U.S. looked disjointed in the attack for nearly the entirety of the Gold Cup. Granted, the style points were never going to be high in a tournament that plays its games on temporary grass fields in the dead of summer, but the U.S. has a lot of room for improvement here.
Not that Klinsmann necessarily said so publicly. After Wednesday’s loss to Jamaica, he said: “It was a very, very good performance. I told them at halftime as well: Just keep playing like that, you’re going to get more opportunities, and sooner or later you’ll put them in the net … We lost this game with two set-pieces that we conceded, as simple as that. We had enough chances to put three, four, five in there. We didn’t do that, and that’s why at the end of the day we lost.”
The U.S. did have more scoring chances than Jamaica, but Klinsmann has a tendency to paint a rosier picture than most would see after bad losses. You have to think he’s being more critical with the team behind closed doors, but if he’s not, that’s a problem.
As for the defense, Timmy Chandler struggled mightily at right back before being removed for the semifinal due to a knee issue. Klinsmann also decided to rely on John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado as his central pairing, ahead of players like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Tim Ream. (You could include Geoff Cameron in this list as well, though the word is that Stoke City wanted Cameron to rest this summer.)
While having some continuity in the central pairing would be a change of pace after all the changes Klinsmann has made there, the jury is out on whether Brooks and Alvarado are the two guys for those spots. And it’s hard to argue there weren’t better options to win this tournament (which Klinsmann said was hugely important).
“This one game doesn’t make us a bad team,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said on Wednesday. “This game doesn’t set us 20 steps backward. You learn from it and move on.”
Said Bradley: “At the moment it’s just letting this sink in, digesting everything a little bit. We have no choice but to move ourselves forward, to continue to improve, to make strides in every way. We’ll deal with the third-place game in the best possible way. We have two big friendlies in September to get us ready for what we know will be a big game in October.”
5) Why is October so important?
The Confederations Cup playoff isn’t the only big event in October for U.S. men’s soccer. The qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics will also take place, and the U.S. is hoping to find success after the failure of missing out on London 2012. Klinsmann’s top lieutenant, Andi Herzog, his senior team assistant coach, will have even more pressure on him now to get the U.S. to Brazil.
Klinsmann has spoken many times of the value that playing in the Olympics can bring to his player development project. It puts young players in pressure-packed games in a global tournament environment. But qualifying is never guaranteed, and if Klinsmann’s hand-picked coach fails for the second straight time, that would put Klinsmann in a tight spot with his bosses.
So that’s where we are moving forward with the U.S. men’s national team. After the disappointment of this Gold Cup, the next three months look to be more intriguing than many of us had originally anticipated.