WASHINGTON—The U.S. national team didn’t intend to close out this inconvenient international window against New Zealand, which currently is ranked 88th in the world.
The Americans originally had hoped to play Ghana on Tuesday here at RFK Stadium. But when the Black Stars were prevented from coming by a FIFA rule prohibiting excess exhibition travel, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff were left scrambling. Most decent teams are involved in World Cup qualifying this week, and there wasn’t much interest in scheduling another CONCACAF opponent a month before the Hexagonal kicks off. So the All Whites filled in, leaving the Americans to prepare for November’s showdowns with Mexico and Costa Rica with friendlies against overmatched semi-pros from Cuba and a Kiwi squad no one would place among the sport’s elite.
“CONMEBOL is fully scheduled and UEFA is fully scheduled,” Klinsmann said Monday. “We go [through] the list up and down, believe me. We’re trying to get the best opponents as possible, but it’s going to be a very tricky path going forward.”
Since his first day on the job, Klinsmann has stressed the need to play better teams. He’s taken the U.S. on the road for difficult friendlies and was an enthusiastic supporter of this summer’s Copa América Centenario. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then that Klinsmann is not a fan of CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani’s wish to overhaul the region’s World Cup qualifying format to ensure smaller countries are involved for longer.
“For us, it would be the opposite direction [we should go],” Klinsmann said.
Montagliani recently told the Associated Press that the current CONCACAF format, which ends in the upcoming Hex, is “archaic” and unfair to developing nations.
“Something needs to change because you can't have 85% of your members who are on the outside looking in two years before the World Cup. It doesn't make sense,” Montagliani said. “[The Hex] is great for those six teams over the next year and a bit but how about the other ones It's hard.”
Klinsmann made the point Monday that it’s hard for the U.S. to schedule the games it needs as well, which is why the last thing he wants to see is a format that requires more matches against smaller foes.
“What is our lesson from Copa América? Our lesson from Copa América is if we want to get our program better we have to play with the best,” he said. “In youth soccer terms, you need to play up. [If] you have an 11-year-old super talent, don’t play him with the 11-year-olds, Play him with the 12-year-olds. For us, if we want to get better, we need to play with the best teams out there from South America or from Europe.”
The U.S. faced the No. 1 (Argentina) and No. 3 (Colombia) ranked teams in the world during the Copa and went 0-3-0. That was frustrating at the time, but Klinsmann would argue that it's necessary for the long term.
"We need to challenge ourselves in order to break into the top 15, top 10 in the world,” Klinsmann said. "We need to play them, and the more often we play Argentina, the better our results will get because the less fear we have, or respect we have. If you play them every five years one time, and you see [for] the first time in five years Messi right out there, 'ooh, usually you see him on TV.'"
Rather than make World Cup qualifying more inclusive, Klinsmann said, the regional governing bodies should focus on making the combined Copa América a regular occurrence.
“I’m not saying we need to join UEFA or we need to join CONMEBOL, but for us the eternal topic is the need to get the best games in order to improve our players,” the coach said. “So if we can have every two years a Copa América, we need to let a [biennial] Gold Cup go.”
For a look at the potential consequences of softening the schedule, one need only to take a peek inside the visitors locker room on Tuesday. Australia’s 2006 move to the Asian Football Confederation has been a boon to that country—it won the regional championship two years ago—but has left New Zealand increasingly isolated.
“Ask New Zealand how do they want to get [better],” Klinsmann said. “There in Oceania, [they’re] now the only team really.”