CHICAGO—A year of tension and frustration, which has included a fourth-place finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a loss to Mexico in the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff and a World Cup qualifying setback in Guatemala, has changed the tone around the U.S. national team and increased the pressure on manager Jurgen Klinsmann to an unprecedented degree. Awarded a contract extension before the 2014 World Cup and given a sweeping mandate to alter the long-term trajectory of the program, he now may be coaching for his job at the Copa América Centenario.
The U.S. fell, 2-0, to Colombia in Friday’s opener and faced elimination if it lost to Costa Rica Tuesday at Soldier Field. Several hours before the match, which the U.S. won 4-0, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati hosted a reporters’ roundtable and stressed, “We have to win games.”
For several years, it’s been almost pointless to question Klinsmann’s job security. He was given robust resources, a lot of power and a lengthy list of technical and cultural issues to address. Many of those required significant time to analyze, assess and improve, affording him ample leeway. And surviving a difficult group at the World Cup seemed to provide him tenure.
But Gulati’s tone on Tuesday suggested that security largely has evaporated. He would not say directly whether Klinsmann would be fired if the U.S. fails to reach the Copa quarterfinals, but there seemed to be little question that the manager’s status is less certain now than it’s ever been.
“There’s short-term goals and long-term goals. The reality is, the business we’re in, specifically the business coaches are in, you don’t get to see through many long-term goals if you don’t hit the short-term goals,” he said. “There are things overall in his role as technical director that we think we’ve made good advances in, but we need to win games and we need to win games in competitive play. The first few years, obviously we did that. In the  Gold Cup we were very successful and the World Cup we could talk about all day, but last summer in particular with the Gold Cup and then the reprieve we had [against Mexico], we didn’t get it done.”
Gulati indicated that the focus must be on official competitions, where Klinsmann has compiled a 23-9-6 record since taking over and a 5-4-3 mark since the 2014 World Cup (heading into Tuesday’s match).
“The Gold Cup matters. Copa América matters. The Confederations Cup matters if you qualify. So, if you’re ranking all those things then obviously playing in the World Cup is singularly the most important thing. But all those competitions matter,” Gulati said. “They’re an assessment of where you are.”
Five years into Klinsmann’s tenure, the national team isn’t where Gulati thought it would be. Now he expects the U.S. advance from the Copa's Group A despite last week's loss.
“There are areas where I would have hoped for more progress and other areas where we’ve done well. That in many ways reflects recent results …. Results over the last 18 months overall haven’t been what we would have hoped for,” he said. “We’ll look at everything after the end of this competition. I don’t get too high or too low based on one game, especially when it’s in this tournament against a very good team [Colombia]….We’ll wait and see how the next two games go and hopefully some additional games after that before we assess where things are again.”
Following the Copa América, the U.S. won’t have another meaningful game until it plays World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and then Trinidad and Tobago in early September. Hypothetically, Gulati would have time to make a change, if he felt there needs to be one.
Klinsmann is signed through the end of 2018, leaving only a year and a half on his contract.
“Whenever we look at important competitions like this, it’s thorough analysis and evaluation,” he said. “We’re at a break point after a big competition and before next set of important competitions, which is in the fall, so we look at all of those things.”
Gulati concluded by saying that he didn’t want to address hypotheticals, stressing that a loss to Colombia on its own shouldn’t come as a shock. But, he said, “We have to win games … no one has ironclad job security. Jurgen’s already said, for coaches and players, it’s about results.”
Gulati addressed several other topics during the hour-long meeting, including the Copa itself, FIFA and even the upcoming presidential election:
Permanent combined Copa talks 'inaccurate'
Gulati said reports this week that there have been discussions about combining the Copa América and CONCACAF Gold Cup permanently are “completely inaccurate.”
He said, “There have been no discussions about future events with U.S. Soccer or between CONCACAF and CONMEBOL about this. I made sure that in order to make the second part of that statement I talked with [CONCACAF president] Victor [Montagliani] yesterday. He’s had no discussions with anyone at CONMEBOL about it. So, there is nothing imminent, no plans, no discussions have taken place.”
That doesn’t mean there won’t be more potential cooperation between the North and South American confederations in the future.
“If were thinking about a combined event in the future, it wouldn’t have to be a Copa América. It would be some new created event, where there might be an equal number of teams [from the two confederations] for example, or all of those things that are specific to Copa América wouldn’t necessarily be in place,” he said. “What we might talk about for a future event would be a new event.”
A Trump presidency could impact a World Cup bid
U.S. Soccer may not host another Copa, but it certainly would like to bring a second World Cup to American shores. Having been beaten controversially by Qatar in the race to host the 2022 finals, the U.S. now is waiting for FIFA to establish the rules and procedures for bidding for 2026. Gulati has said that the U.S. won’t commit to bidding until those parameters are established in early 2017.
Meanwhile, he'll be watching this November’s election results.
“I think the world’s perception is affected by who’s in the White House, yes, and so it has some bearing,” Gulati said. “I think having somebody in the White House that gives a the country an outward-looking view and a personality that’s more easily accepted around the world is positive for the United States and then more specifically for hosting events here and our general image from a sports perspective. But it’s far beyond sports.”
Gulati wouldn’t rule out a bid if Donald Trump wins the presidency.
“We’re going to bid for a World Cup if we think we’re going to be successful,” he said. “I think whether we can be successful in a World Cup or L.A. in an Olympic bid is affected by the world’s view of our leaders, and not just the leaders of the soccer federation.”