ST. LOUIS — The trends aren’t good. The U.S. national team has won only one of its past six matches and has lost three consecutive home games for the first time in nearly 20 years. The Americans came in fourth at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, their worst finish since 2000, then fell short in the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff against archrival Mexico. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was supposed to be the visionary who would lay the foundation for the national team’s assault on soccer’s summit. Now, entering his fifth year, many are questioning his fitness for the job.
It doesn’t sound like the ideal way to start World Cup qualifying. But for a team looking for a spark, a bit of momentum and a path back to its customary place in the regional hierarchy, Friday’s game against tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines here at Busch Stadium couldn’t be more timely.
“It was a tough summer for us. But I think every team goes through it at some point and it’s about how we respond to it,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said Thursday as the U.S. prepared to train on the reconfigured baseball field at Busch Stadium.
“This will be a good opportunity for us to get back on the winning ways and things like that. That was the past. We’ve got to move forward. It’s just sports.”
Defeat at the Gold Cup and then last month against Mexico means the U.S. won’t play at the 2017 Confederations Cup, an eight-team warm-up event that would have given Klinsmann an opportunity to test his squad against some of the sport’s elite sides while getting a sneak peak at Russia a year ahead of the World Cup. It’s a lost opportunity, for sure, but it doesn’t distract from the team’s ultimate mission: to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup and then make its mark.
“That’s all behind us,” captain Michael Bradley said of the recent rough results. “We play to get to World Cups. The World Cups for us are the pinnacle–what it’s all about. The journey is long. It takes us a lot of different places. It’s a lot of different games. And that starts [Friday] night. You can only be excited for that.”
Friday’s match will be the first of six in this semifinal round, which features three groups of four teams. The U.S. will play game No. 2 at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, then resume qualifying with a home-and-home against Guatemala in March. The group’s top two finishers will move on to CONCACAF’s Hexagonal, which begins late next year and which offers three automatic berths to the 2018 World Cup.
The Americans are heavy favorites to move on, but the margin for error is surprisingly narrow. It takes only one or two bad results to create a bit of chaos at this stage, and nothing is guaranteed in CONCACAF, especially on the road. Twice, in 2012 and 2000, the U.S. needed a result in the sixth and final game to ensure passage to the Hex. There won’t be much time or leeway to recover from a slow start; a Gold Cup hangover is not a luxury this team can afford.
That being said, St. Vincent is a team of semi-professionals that’s ranked 129th in the world. The U.S. will be expected to win easily and emphatically.
“We’re trying to get back to winning ways as quick as possible,” Beckerman said. “If we would have won the Gold Cup, we’d still have to win now. There’s always a game on the horizon we have to get ready for and have to perform [in].”
Despite the high stakes, Klinsmann isn’t shying away from the transition to a younger team. Some of the old guard won’t be World Cup fit by 2018. Others may now be on their way out following a disappointing summer. There are 10 players on this 23-man team with no qualifying experience and seven who are 24 or younger. Six have fewer than 10 senior caps. Two (Darlington Nagbe and Matt Miazga) have none, and one, Jordan Morris, is still in college.
Klinsmann said Thursday that it’s all part of the plan.
“We started the process right after the World Cup,” he explained. “We introduce new players, younger players, in order to see how fast they can make an impact on this team going forward because three years down the road, we want to be competitive in the World Cup. We cannot start that process six months or nine months out.
“They’re coming in because they’re good. They deserve to come in and they deserve to get a chance to play in World Cup qualifying games, in games that really are very, very important. We cannot wait until the very last moment and then hope for the best in the World Cup. So it’s a logical process.”
LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes, 24, is the one new U.S. player who’s established himself in Klinsmann’s rotation since the 2014 World Cup. He’ll be a candidate to start alongside or underneath Jozy Altidore on Friday.
Bobby Wood (the hero of June’s friendly wins over Germany and Holland) and Morris (a Stanford University junior), who’ve shown flashes of promise and even a bit of brilliance over the past year, also will compete for minutes. In midfield, Nagbe offers a central attacking presence and the sort of speed and skill on the ball the U.S. has been lacking. Miazga isn’t likely to play over the likes of Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, but Klinsmann will be tempted to field the rising New York Red Bulls star at some point in the next week in order to cap-tie him to the U.S. Miazga also is eligible to play for Poland through his parents.
“I was keeping my doors open until the opportunity comes with either first team,” Miazga said Thursday. “So the opportunity came with the USA and I’ve always envisioned and dreamed of playing for the full team. So the opportunity came about and I was excited and ready to take the challenge.”
Said Bradley, “It's important to get some new blood in, some new faces. It’s important in anything to find the right balance between young, old, experienced, new. But there’s no doubt that in terms of where we are in the transition of a team, we need some new faces, some young players, to come in and start to really show what they’re all about.”
Klinsmann also hinted Thursday that Fabian Johnson may shift from right back into midfield, where he plays for Borussia Monchengladbach. That would leave Brek Shea and St. Louis native Tim Ream as the potential starters at outside back unless Klinsmann decides to give DeAndre Yedlin–a midfielder for country but a defender for club–an opportunity. Brad Guzan will start in goal against St. Vincent and Tim Howard will get the nod next week in Trinidad, the manager said.
“For us, nothing changes,” Guzan said of splitting time with Howard. “It’s probably made more of a big deal from you guys than us.”
The Aston Villa netminder stayed with that theme when asked about the national team’s recent poor form. Regardless of the discussion or consternation, Guzan argued, a strong start to qualifying will quiet many of the questions.
“We know the results haven’t been great for us, but at the same time, we are confident in our team. We are confident in each other,” Guzan said. “We win [against St. Vincent], we win Tuesday, all of a sudden everyone is talking a different game and everyone is saying how great we are. We leave that stuff to you guys. You guys tell us how great we are and how bad we are, so we’ve developed thick enough skin to know this is part of being part of the national team. We’re not naive to think our performances have been great. We now have the opportunity to turn things around.”