WASHINGTON, D.C. — No arena in the world has hosted more U.S. national team matches than RFK Stadium, the decrepit but venerable edifice crumbling two miles to the east of the U.S. Capitol.
The Americans have had mixed results inside. Among the 22 games played there are wins over Germany, Argentina and Uruguay and four World Cup qualifying triumphs. RFK was the site of the famous two-goal comeback against Costa Rica in 2009, when Jonathan Bornstein scored at the death to force a 2-2 tie and seal first place in the Hexagonal in the wake of Charlie Davies’s car crash. The 55-year-old venue also has been the site of three defeats, including a 2001 setback to Honduras that remains the U.S.'s most recent World Cup qualifying loss on home soil.
Nevertheless, if the national team has a home, it’s here.
"This definitely does feel like home in a lot of ways,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters this week. “There is a tradition we don’t often get in America."
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players now must hope that the comforts of home help them establish some positive momentum heading toward this year’s biggest game. A fourth-place finish at July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup raised numerous questions about the team’s trajectory and resulted in unprecedented pressure on its high-profile manager. It also necessitated an October playoff against Mexico for the continent’s berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
All that’s separating the U.S. from that playoff are Friday’s friendly against Peru at RFK and Tuesday’s showdown with Brazil in Foxborough, Massachusetts. For Klinsmann, the goal during those two games is simple: settle on the team and the tactics that will beat Mexico next month.
“It’s definitely a pleasure being back here in D.C., and a stadium that’s always treated us nicely,” Klinsmann said Thursday afternoon. “The training sessions since Sunday have been very intense. So we saw a lot of good stuff, great attitude from the players … all that stuff is geared toward the Mexico clash.”
Klinsmann has put most starting spots up for grabs, at least publicly (he’s already declared Brad Guzan the No. 1 goalkeeper) and hasn’t turned his back on the players who failed to win the Gold Cup.
In fact, 17 of the 24 men eligible to play a part in the upcoming friendlies (including Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who will join the team prior to the Brazil game) were on the Gold Cup roster.
There’s no panic in Klinsmann and no rush to dismantle the foundation he’s been building since last year’s World Cup. While some might regard July’s results as cause for an overhaul—it was the team’s worst Gold Cup finish since 2000—the manager certainly does not. In fact, he remains somewhat defiant, convinced the U.S. played some of its best soccer in the semifinal setback to Jamaica and that circumstances beyond the team’s control played a role in its elimination.
“There are definitely things that needed to be improved out of every game that we played in that Gold Cup. With a very, very good performance against Jamaica we went out because of certain things that I’ve mentioned before, but also we had enough chances to put the game away as well,” Klinsmann acknowledged Thursday when asked about what he thought needed to be improved from July’s performance. “We needed to put the ball in the net with the [shot] locations we had in that game, and I’m not only referring to some referee calls that were very doubtful. There are things we need to do better. But there’s also a lot of good stuff in the Gold Cup. That obviously will not be mentioned when you don’t win it. That’s just normal.”
The Gold Cup environment, from the travel and turf to the officiating, was a constant topic of conversation during the tournament and appears to remain Klinsmann’s primary public scapegoat for the fourth place finish. He referenced it during Thursday’s news conference and elaborated during an interview with The Washington Post.
“I was very upset with what happened in the Gold Cup,” Klinsmann told The Post. “There was a certain amount of anger. A big problem hanging over us is called CONCACAF. We don’t want to blame anybody. I am not blaming the referees. But I’m just telling you, the referees had a huge influence on the outcome of the Gold Cup.”
He continued, “You don’t know what to expect in a [CONCACAF] game. We can prepare the team the best way possible and we don’t know what to expect really from other influences.”
Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said Thursday that the Gold Cup, “definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths… We couldn’t control everything that happened. The players, you have to have that little bit of anger, that sour taste in your mouth of things that happened in the tournament and the way it went. But at the end of the day, we didn’t win it like we set out to.”
There certainly will be outside influences in October, starting with a crowd of some 90,000 at the Rose Bowl. The stakes will be high, and the fact remains the U.S. will have to play better against Mexico than it did at the Gold Cup. Except for the quarterfinal against over-matched Cuba, a 6-0 win, the U.S. struggled for significant stretches in each Gold Cup game.
It lacked cohesion and was outshot by a combined 50-20 during the group stage but still managed a 2-0-1 record.
The U.S. wasn’t clinical in front of either goal against Jamaica and lost a game in which it played relatively well. The quality and finishing, as Klinsmann said, just wasn’t there. The Americans then fell to Panama on penalty kicks in a consolation game in which they played poorly.
U.S. players who spoke with the press before Thursday’s training session at RFK agreed that managing the ball was the key to playing better. If there was something within the team’s control that might improve against Peru, Brazil and then Mexico, it’s possession. (Ironically, the U.S. won the possession battle in the two Gold Cup games it lost).
“In training, the drills we do, it’s a lot of possession drills,” midfielder/forward Gyasi Zardes said. “Just really working on just keeping the ball.”
Said defender Omar Gonzalez, “One thing that was mentioned to us was that our possession needs to get better. So that’s some of what we’ve been working on. I think everyone’s had a great attitude this week. Everyone’s been working hard.”
Midfielder Mix Diskerud said the U.S. wanted to adopt a “’more possession-based’ approach,” adding, “Moving forward we want to see that more and that’s something you got to work on But of course every single team in the world wants to have the ball more. It’s something you have to work on all the time.”
Klinsmann also has to settle on a center back pairing for the Mexico game, and competition at that position appears to be wide open. There are eight center backs in camp thanks to the late addition of Birmingham City’s Jonathan Spector. And with Bradley and Dempsey unavailable on Friday, there are points to be made by the midfielders and forwards. Klinsmann said Thursday he expects to substitute liberally in order to get a look at as many players as possible.
“We started the process already. We are very, very hungry for that game at the Rose Bowl," Klinsmann said Thursday.
Peru is no pushover. It finished third at this summer’s Copa América and has brought almost the entire squad from the South American championship tournament to the U.S. Included are Real Betis midfielder Juan Manuel Vargas, rising defensive star Luis Advíncula (Bursaspor) and high-scoring forward Jefferson Farfán, who just left Schalke 04 for the United Arab Emirates. Peru, along with Brazil, will give the U.S. the test it needs to prepare for the October playoff.
If the Americans manage games more effectively, establish some rhythm and possession in midfield and find the right combination in back, they won’t have to worry as much about the officiating or organization. That effort will start before some 30,000 fans in the homey confines of RFK.
“These two games will serve as a good starting point for the players to see where we’re at, and this is where every player has to pull up their socks, look in the mirror and show what they’re capable of and prove to the coach that we deserve a starting spot,” Bedoya said.
"I want to see that hunger and that life and that ambition in every training session... and the players picked up on those words very positively," Klinsmann said. "What we see in training sessions has been very promising. It's been good. So, there's a lot of willingness from the part of the players to correct the things that didn't work in the Gold Cup in these upcoming matches."