Miguel Herrera is gone, undone by the passion that caused fire and lightning to pour from his body in so many gifs and which breathed life back into the Mexican national team in time to qualify for last summer’s World Cup.
El Piojo—“The Louse”—was fired Tuesday, fewer than 48 hours after winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, because of an airport altercation with a Televisión Azteca commentator. Thanks to one moment of madness, Herrera’s 21-month tenure with El Tri was over.
But make no mistake, his job security was always tenuous. Mexico entered this month’s Gold Cup on a seven-game winless streak, which included a ‘B’ team’s 0-1-2 run at Copa América.
It then was poor during the CONCACAF championship tournament, until the final. Herrera escaped the axe twice last week. El Tri needed phantom penalty kick calls to avoid a shootout following a wasteful performance against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal, and then to avoid a loss to 10-man Panama in the semi. Defeat in either game would have cost Herrera his job. He was hired during a crisis and would last until the next one.
That’s because Mexico demands results. The infrastructure is in place and national team coaches are expected to win now. The last El Tri manager to survive an entire World Cup cycle was Ricardo La Volpe (2002-06). Seven men have occupied the position since. By contrast, each of the past five U.S. national team coaches has remained on the job for at least one cycle (Steve Sampson’s started in 1995 but he worked through the ’98 World Cup).
It’s totally impossible to imagine Jurgen Klinsmann assaulting a critic. Publically, the U.S. coach is easy going and affable. He deflects criticism with a laugh and an “It’s fine,” or “It’s just normal.” Following last week’s semifinal loss to Jamaica, Klinsmann said the resulting furor “just shows and proves the growth of [soccer in] the United States.” But then he compared the environment to Europe, where “You walk out of your door … and you get it in your face.”
He could have added Mexico to that sentence. The demands in the U.S., for the most part, simply are different.
Klinsmann can continue to coach with ultimate confidence despite a fourth-place finish at a frenetic Gold Cup because he knows he wasn’t hired to win a given game on a given day, or even a given tournament. Results are important, sure. And they certainly are to the players, whose effort shouldn’t be questioned. But if the U.S. Soccer Federation wanted a coach who focused on devising a plan to win the match in front of him, it would have stuck with Bob Bradley.
The USSF and president Sunil Gulati were aiming for something else. They wanted a leader with global pedigree—one who would take aim at the roots and identity of the American game, from the way players are educated and developed to the style of soccer they play once they take the field. They wanted a coach who would inspire increased confidence and devotion in athletes and more passion from supporters (Bradley, incidentally, proved plenty inspirational during this tenure in Egypt), all while questioning the assumptions we make at every level of the sport. And they desired a recruiter who would tempt dual nationals to commit to the U.S. That's not a one-year, or even a four-year, mandate. Klinsmann’s 2013 contract renewal and promotion to USSF technical director are testament to the generational job he’s been hired to do.
“We don’t make judgments based on one thing,” Gulati said after the U.S. fell to Panama in Saturday’s bronze medal game. “Progress is not linear for anyone. There’s bumps along the way. This is clearly a bump … But that’s the norm for everyone because you don’t go through and win all your games. Is Argentina happy about not qualifying for the Confederations Cup? And Brazil being out? But they don’t panic and throw everything out. We’re making progress in certain areas, and less so in other areas.”
Progress isn’t linear. It’s coming in some areas, but not others. That’s been the case since Klinsmann took over, and it’s why the Gold Cup results shouldn’t really surprise anyone. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were.
Klinsmann is constantly testing and tinkering and he’s enchanted by things new and undiscovered. Youth, speed and fearlessness are always appealing. He brought DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green and Aron Jóhannsson to the World Cup at the expense of Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson, among others. And Klinsmann kept sending defenders John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado out during the Gold Cup despite mistakes that indicated they weren’t quite ready.
Tactics and responsibilities shift and positions often are notional. Michael Bradley became an attacking midfielder a couple months before the World Cup. Gyasi Zardes became a winger, Brek Shea an outside back and, on a few occasions, Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona a No. 6. Multiple players have been deployed in multiple spots. Does that hinder chemistry on the day? Probably. But does it, over time, make players more flexible and comfortable when facing different teams, situations and challenges? That’s what Klinsmann is banking on.
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Sometimes, it all comes together. The U.S. tore through the 2013 Gold Cup, winning all six games by a combined 20-4. It won friendlies in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico City. Sometimes, it doesn’t come together. The Americans were fortunate last summer in Brazil, escaping from a murderous group at 1-1-1 before taking a dominant Belgium to extra time in the round of 16. The U.S. was outshot 94-44 across its four games and was outpossessed 56.5% to 43.5%. Both shot totals were the worst of any U.S. World Cup team since American soccer’s modern era began in 1990. None of the 2014 squad’s six predecessors yielded more completed passes and only one did a poorer job holding onto the ball.
Is it a shock, then, that after a “year of transition” featuring myriad adjustments, arrivals and departures, that the U.S. posted an ugly performance in an ugly tournament? Perhaps only Jamaica and Haiti left this Gold Cup feeling good about itself. The other entrants were underwhelming, none more so than Klinsmann’s U.S. Save the 6-0 quarterfinal annihilation of Cuba, the Americans created few chances (but finished efficiently until the semifinal), rarely imposed themselves on their opponent for significant stretches and failed to establish much continuity or chemistry. No team took fewer shots during the group stage.
The Americans weren't clinical in the semifinal and then were outplayed badly in the consolation game. But none of the U.S. players was developed in an environment fashioned by Klinsmann. The tone he hopes to set has come too late for veteran members of the senior squad. He’s pushing them anyway, perhaps courageously, perhaps naively, and rolling the dice on the final score. Maybe that’s the price to pay for long-term progress. Or maybe it’s just the price for hiring Klinsmann.
There have been calls for Klinsmann’s job since the Gold Cup from both fans and the press. The clamor is now louder than ever. It suggests that some who were fine with him before the tournament have changed their mind or seen their patience exhausted.
But three weeks of Gold Cup mayhem shouldn’t really have had a significant impact on your opinion. This is the same team we’ve seen for the past couple of years. It’s just that this time, the breaks didn’t go their way. If you thought before the Gold Cup that Klinsmann was capable of the long-term, foundational change he’s been asked to implement, then a couple of tight games played in the heat or on shoddy fields, and some bad bounces against Jamaica, shouldn’t convince you otherwise. If you never thought he was capable, or if you felt results should trump a coach or federation's long-term vision, then you probably made your decision last summer. Either way, the Gold Cup was just another bump in the road, one step back amid many.
Gulati said Saturday that Klinsmann’s job wouldn’t be in jeopardy even if the U.S. loses the October playoff against Mexico that will send the winner to 2017 Confederations Cup. It is, after all, only one game. And it will be played at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl before what very well could be a hostile crowd. El Tri’s coaching change may confuse or inspire. We won’t know for 10 weeks.
What we do know, however, is that if the U.S. is improving, it’s not necessarily going to be evident during a 90-minute senior international. We don’t see the way members of the U-17 pool are training, or whether methods have improved at clubs throughout U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. We don’t know if Klinsmann’s fitness and nutrition, martial arts, social media and financial planning classes will forge more well-rounded, responsible athletes.
We don’t know if the newly-established junior national teams or coaches' education standards will produce results. We don't know if Gedion Zelalem, Bobby Wood or Rubio Rubin will fizzle or blossom by 2018, or if the Brooks and Alvarado Gold Cup experience will pay off. We don’t know if anyone's listening at MLS headquarters. We don't know if soccer’s increasing, organic popularity will be sufficient to raise the level of play, or if the game needs a push from Klinsmann to get there.
If the U.S. wins in October, many will praise Klinsmann for rallying his troops and beating Mexico in a huge game (in a stadium Bob Bradley couldn't). If the U.S. loses, he’ll be hammered. Either way, the noise probably will miss the point. He’s here on a long-term project. That means he’s here for the long term. And we may not know if he did a good job until after he's gone.
The Year in Photos: U.S. Soccer in 2015
U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
Paul Arriola (7) celebrates his goal in a World Cup qualifying playoff match vs. El Salvador. The U.S. U-20s cemented their place in the World Cup with a 2-0 win. They drew host New Zealand, Ukraine and Myanmar in their summer group.
USMNT vs. Chile, January 28
Bobby Wood flies high in the USA's 3-2 loss to Chile, which opened the calendar year for the national team. Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore scored in the loss.
USMNT vs. Panama, February 8
Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey celebrate after combining for a goal against Panama at StubHub Center to cap off winter training camp with a 2-0 victory.
USWNT vs. France, February 8
Lori Chalupny (left) and the USWNT had a tough time keeping pace with Jessica Houara (center) and France in a 2-0 loss in a friendly in Lorient. The match was the first of two played without suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo.
USWNT vs. England, February 13
Alex Morgan celebrates scoring the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over England in a friendly at Stadium mk in Milton Keynes.
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
The USWNT opens the Algarve Cup with a 2-1 win over Norway, marking Hope Solo's return from a 30-day suspension with a come-from-behind victory. Carli Lloyd scored both goals for the Americans.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
Alex Morgan celebrates her goal in the USWNT's 3-0 win over Switzerland in the Algarve Cup group stage.
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
Alex Morgan and the USWNT were frustrated by Iceland, held to a 0-0 draw to wrap up group play at the Algarve Cup. The result was still enough to put the Americans in the final against France.
USWNT vs. France, March 11
The U.S. women's national team celebrates winning the Algarve Cup after a 2-0 triumph over France. Julie Johnston and Christen Press scored, and Hope Solo saved a penalty kick.
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
The U.S. U-17 national team celebrates qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup after defeating Jamaica on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw in a playoff match.
USMNT vs. Denmark, March 25
U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando expresses his frustration after one of Nicklas Bendtner's three goals in Denmark's 3-2 win over the Americans. Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson scored for the USA.
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31
Jozy Altidore watches as Brek Shea hits a perfect free kick to put the USA on the board against Switzerland. The Americans settled for a 1-1 draw.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, April 4
Lori Chalupny (16) celebrates her goal vs. New Zealand with Lauren Holiday at St. Louis's Busch Stadium. The goal opened the floodgates for a late outburst en route to a 4-0 U.S. victory in front of more than 35,000 fans.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Jordan Morris etched his name in U.S.-Mexico lore, as the Stanford University forward scored in his first senior national team start to break a scoreless draw against El Tri at the Alamodome.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Juan Agudelo collapses to the ground in celebration after his goal at the Alamodome gave the USA a familiar lead over Mexico: Dos-a-Cero.
U.S. U-23 vs. Mexico, April 22
Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil captains the USA to a 3-0 win over Mexico at StubHub Center in Olympic qualifying preparation for both CONCACAF favorites.
USWNT vs. Ireland, May 10
Abby Wambach celebrates one of her two goals vs. Ireland as the USWNT took a 3-0 win on Mother's Day at Avaya Stadium.
USWNT vs. Mexico, May 17
Sydney Leroux is congratulated by her teammates after one of her two goals in a 5-1 pre-World Cup rout of Mexico at StubHub Center.
U.S. U-20 vs. Myanmar, May 30
Maki Tall celebrates his equalizer for the USA as part of a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Myanmar to open the U-20 World Cup group stage in New Zealand.
USWNT vs. South Korea, May 30
Carli Lloyd gets off a shot through traffic in the USA's final World Cup send-off friendly, a 0-0 draw against South Korea at Red Bull Arena.
U.S. U-23 in Toulon Tournament, May-June
Alonso Hernandez, left, takes on Qatar, while Julian Green, right, vies for the ball against France in the Toulon Tournament as part of Olympic qualifying preparations.
U.S. U-20 vs. New Zealand, June 2
Gedion Zelalem controls the ball against New Zealand in the USA's 4-0 win that cemented a place in the U-20 World Cup knockout stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Ukraine, June 5
From left, Joel Soñora, Gedion Zelalem and Rubio Rubin show frustration during a 3-0 loss to Ukraine that wrapped up group play in the U-20 World Cup.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
DeAndre Yedlin and Danny Williams salute each other after the latter's goal–his first international strike–brought the U.S. level with the Netherlands at 3-3 in the 89th minute.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
Bobby Wood puts the finishing touch on an epic comeback, with his 90th-minute strike capping a wild 4-3 win for the USA over the Netherlands. The USA trailed 3-1 in the 71st minute.
U.S. U-23 vs. England, June 7
USA defender Boyd Okwuonu makes a tackle on England's Duncan Watmore in the Toulon Tournament third-place game. The U.S. U-23s won 2-1, sealing their best finish in the tournament.
USWNT vs. Australia, June 8, WWC
Megan Rapinoe lets out a yell after her second goal, which sealed the USA's 3-1 win over Australia to open Group D play in the Women's World Cup.
U.S. U-20 vs. Colombia, June 10
Rubio Rubin celebrates the goal that gives the USA a 1-0 win over Colombia in the FIFA U-20 World Cup round of 16. Zack Steffen's late penalty save preserved the win, as the Americans reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
Michael Bradley was everywhere against World Cup champion Germany, assisting on Mix Diskerud's equalizer and commanding the midfield in a 2-1 win in Cologne.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
For the second straight game, Bobby Wood came off the bench and scored a stunning winner. He watches his long-range blast beat Ron-Robert Zieler in a 2-1 win over world No. 1 Germany.
USWNT vs. Sweden, June 12
Julie Johnston wins the header in a dominant showing on the U.S. back line, helping the Americans preserve a 0-0 draw against Sweden in the second game of the Women's World Cup group stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Serbia, June 13
U.S. players' emotions say it all after a gut-wrenching loss to Serbia in penalty kicks at the U-20 World Cup. After a 0-0 draw, the Americans fell 6-5 in PKs, despite Zack Steffen's two saves in sudden death.
USWNT vs. Nigeria, June 16
Abby Wambach leaps for joy after scoring in the 45th minute off Megan Rapinoe's corner kick, which delivered a 1-0 win to the USA and first place in Group D of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Colombia, June 22
Alex Morgan's goal broke a 0-0 draw, provided relief after Abby Wambach's PK miss and helped the U.S. women to the World Cup quarterfinals after a 2-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16.
USWNT vs. China, June 26
While Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates her goal in the distance, stalwart center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn rejoice in the goal that put the USA into the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Germany, June 30
Carli Lloyd yells in celebration after scoring the penalty that put the USA up over Germany en route to a 2-0 victory in the Women's World Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, July 3
DeAndre Yedlin and Jozy Altidore, wearing special jerseys with stars-and-stripes numbers for July 4, celebrate after a Guatemala own goal gifts the USA a 1-0 lead during a 4-0 win in Nashville, Tennessee, prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Carli Lloyd sets the tone with a third-minute goal in the Women's World Cup final against Japan, the first of her three strikes within 16 minutes that lifted the USA to a 5-2 win and its first title in 16 years.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
U.S. players rush the field after the final whistle, which sealed their 5-2 triumph over Japan and a record third World Cup title.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Victorious, the U.S. women's national team raises the World Cup trophy for the third time, but the first in 16 years, after completing a 5-2 win over Japan in the final at Vancouver's BC Place.
USMNT vs. Honduras, July 7
Clint Dempsey leaps in celebration of his second goal in the USA's Gold Cup opener against Honduras. The Americans won 2-1, fending off a late Honduras surge to collect all three points in the start of their title defense.
USA vs. Haiti, July 10
Clint Dempsey (8) is congratulated by his teammates after a 47th-minute goal gave the USA a 1-0 win over Haiti in the Gold Cup. Gyasi Zardes, second from left, came on at halftime and assisted, and the win clinched first place in Group A.
USMNT vs Panama, July 13
Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley, right, celebrate after the latter's goal in the USA's 1-1 draw vs. Panama, which wrapped up group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USMNT vs. Cuba, July 18
The U.S. men put on a clinic against an overmatched Cuba in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, with Clint Dempsey's hat trick leading the way in a 6-0 rout. Gyasi Zardes, Aron Johannsson and Omar Gonzalez also scored.
USMNT vs. Jamaica, July 22
A downtrodden Clint Dempsey and Jurgen Klinsmann walk off the field as Jamaica celebrates a stunning 2-1 win over the USA in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Panama, July 25
Michael Bradley walks away in dismay after having a penalty saved in a PK shootout in the USA's loss to Panama in the Gold Cup third-place game. After a 1-1 draw, Panama prevailed 3-2 in PKs, the USA's first shootout in 10 years.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 16
Meghan Klingenberg waves a Terrible Towel in her hometown of Pittsburgh after scoring one of the USA's many goals in an 8-0 rout of Costa Rica in its first game since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 19
Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara celebrate during a second rout of Costa Rica in three days, this one a 7-2 win in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
USA U-23 vs. England U-21, Sept. 3
U.S. U-23 goalkeeper Zack Steffen looks on in disappointment as England U-21 forward James Wilson celebrates with Duncan Watmore after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 friendly win in England.
USMNT vs. Peru, Sept. 4
Jozy Altidore, right, is congratulated after one of his two goals that sparked the USA's come-from-behind win over Peru at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
USA U-23 vs. Qatar, Sept. 8
Gedion Zelalem made his U-23 debut off the bench in the USA's 2-0 win over Qatar in England in the final tune-up before Olympic qualifying
USMNT vs. Brazil, Sept. 8
Neymar and Marcelo celebrate while DeAndre Yedlin and Ventura Alvarado look away in disgust during Brazil's 4-1 rout of the USA at Gillette Stadium.
USWNT vs. Haiti, Sept. 17, 20
Carli Lloyd scored hat tricks in both games and NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn scored her first international goals as the USWNT beat Haiti 5-0 and 8-0 in a pair of friendlies in Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. Haiti replaced on-strike Australia as a last-minute opponent.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 1
Jerome Kiesewetter, left, and Emerson Hyndman, right, sandwich Jordan Morris after his first-minute goal in the USA's 3-1 win over Canada in their Olympic qualifying opener.
USA U-23 vs. Cuba, October 3
Cameron Carter-Vickers gets congratulated by Jerome Kiesewetter and Emerson Hyndman after opening the scoring in a 6-1 rout of Cuba in their Olympic qualifying match. The USA cemented its place in the semifinal round with the win.
USA U-23 vs. Panama, October 6
There was plenty of credit to go around, as the Americans finished off a perfect group run in Olympic qualifying with a 4-0 win over Panama. Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter came on at halftime and provided the spark needed to seize the three points.
USA U-23 vs. Honduras, October 10
Wil Trapp's reaction says it all, as the USA failed to secure an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics after falling to Honduras 2-0 in the semifinals of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Captain Michael Bradley leads the USA out onto the field ahead of the Americans' CONCACAF Cup playoff vs. Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Geoff Cameron beats Rafa Marquez to the spot and heads home a 15th-minute equalizer off a free kick from Michael Bradley, negating a Chicharito goal five minutes earlier in the CONCACAF Cup playoff between USA and Mexico.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
U.S. forward Bobby Wood celebrates his 108th-minute goal vs. Mexico that brought the Americans level at 2-2 after Oribe Peralta had given El Tri the lead in extra time. That reprieve would only last for 10 minutes, though.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 13
Marc Pelosi (15) celebrates after his goal breaks the deadlock and sends the U.S. U-23s on their way to a 2-0 win over Canada in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying third-place game. The U.S. still has a chance to reach Rio, but it'll have to go through Colombia in a playoff.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, October 13
Tim Howard can't watch as Costa Rica players celebrate Joel Campbell's goal in a 1-0 friendly win at Red Bull Arena. The match marked Howard's return to the U.S. goal for the first time since the 2014 World Cup round of 16.
USA U-17 vs. Nigeria, October 17
Victor Osimhen scores for Nigeria in a 2-0 win over the USA in the teams' FIFA Under-17 World Cup opener in Chile.
USA U-17 vs. Croatia, October 20
USA U-17 midfielder Christian Pulisic watches his opening goal find the back of the net in the Americans' 2-2 draw with Croatia at the World Cup. The U.S. led 2-0 on Pulisic's goal and assist to Brandon Vazquez, but the European side mounted a furious rally to salvage a point.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 21
Shannon Boxx, right, passes off the captain's armband to Carli Lloyd in her final act as a player, riding into retirement in the first half of a 1-1 draw against Brazil in Seattle.
USA U-17 vs. Chile, October 23
USA U-17 captain Hugo Arellano sits dejected after a 4-1 loss to host Chile eliminated the Americans from the World Cup in the group stage.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 25
The USA said goodbye to two more veterans, with Lauren Holiday, left, and Lori Chalupny ending their careers during a 2-1 win over Brazil in Orlando. The team improved to 5-0-1 on its World Cup victory tour with the win.
USWNT at the White House, October 27
President Barack Obama welcomes the World Cup-champion USWNT to the White House, honoring their triumph in Canada.
USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, November 13
Jozy Altidore watches one of his shots head toward goal in the USA's 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the opening of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Altidore scored twice, as the USA overcame a shocking early deficit and won at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
USMNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, November 17
Gyasi Zardes and the U.S. men were held to a 0-0 draw by Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, closing the year with a World Cup qualifying and sitting atop Group C in the semifinal round via goal differential tiebreaker.
USWNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, December 10
Christen Press triumphantly raises her hand after a goal during her hat trick in a 6-0 rout of Trinidad & Tobago at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
USWNT vs. China, December 13
Crystal Dunn leaves her feet to settle a pass in the USA's 2-0 win over China at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Dunn and Christen Press scored the goals.
USWNT vs. China, December 16
Abby Wambach is introduced in the U.S. lineup for the last time at the Superdome in New Orleans, playing in her final match before retiring. She ends her U.S. career with 255 appearances and an international-record 184 goals.