The singular, surreal low point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s five year quest to steer the U.S. toward higher level of soccer success likely came, strangely enough, in a baseball stadium.
It was as if the gods governing American sports simply weren’t having it. Klinsmann’s team had played poorly at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and finished an embarrassing fourth. The performance in the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff was better, but still not enough to overcome Mexico. Then, with the opportunity to restore some confidence presented in November’s World Cup qualifying opener against Caribbean minnow St. Vincent and the Grenadines—a nation of just 103,000 people represented by a national team of semi-pros who were ranked 129th by FIFA—the U.S. gagged.
The crowd at Busch Stadium in St. Louis was barely settled in when Vincy Heat forward Oalex Anderson, who was playing for the Seattle Sounders’ USL team, waltzed through the U.S. defense and beat Brad Guzan to the far post. The game hadn’t reached the five-minute mark, but the Americans had hit bottom.
Afterward, Klinsmann said the early goal “made everybody a bit quiet for the moment … you say, ‘O.K. guys, it gives you even more urgency now to equalize right away.”
The U.S. was bent but far from broken. Bobby Wood scored six minutes later, Fabian Johnson gave them the lead in the 29th and the hosts were on their way to a 6-1 win. The national team’s ensuing 10 months haven’t been entirely smooth—there was the March loss in Guatemala and the fact that it wasn’t at all competitive against Argentina in the Copa América Centenario semis—but they’ve certainly been a far cry from the frustration of 2015 and the stunning, semi-catastrophe that was trailing St. Vincent.
It’s been mostly up from that stunning moment. But it does remind us that nothing is guaranteed in qualifying, and while the U.S. (2-1-1) now is well positioned to finish out this round and advance to the Hexagonal, there are potential stumbling blocks and surprises around every corner. The Americans are pretty far from full strength, the travel won’t be easy and the Vincy Heat (0-4-0), who hosts the U.S. on Friday (3:30 p.m. ET, beIN Sports), know they’ve got at least one goal in them.
Here’s what to watch for as we peek around that corner ahead of the first of two games that will determine which nations advance to the final round of qualifying.
Easier opponents but finer margins
The semifinal round, which comprises three groups of four teams each, shouldn’t be hard for the U.S., a nation that’s qualified for seven straight World Cups and claimed five regional titles. But the pitfalls prevalent in CONCACAF are well known, and the margin for error is smaller with six games on the schedule (compared to 10 in the Hex). As a result, there have been some close calls.
Since the current qualifying format started ahead of the 1998 World Cup, the U.S. has been beaten at least once at this stage of the competition five of six times. That can tighten a group, which left the U.S. to squeak through on a couple of occasions. Four years ago, it needed a 90th-minute goal from Eddie Johnson to win at Antigua & Barbuda, 2-1. Despite that, for a few moments after Guatemalan immortal Carlos Ruiz scored in the fifth minute of the finale, the U.S. was out of the World Cup. And the famous run to the 2002 quarterfinals wouldn’t have happened if Bruce Arena’s team didn’t win in Barbados on the final day of the semifinal round. An October 2000 home draw with Costa Rica and an earlier tie in Guatemala let the U.S. on the precipice.
Only a U.S. win on Friday and a Trinidad (3-0-1) triumph over Guatemala (2-2-0) would seal passage to the Hex before Group C comes to a close Sept. 6. Any other combination of results will leave the U.S. needing some good fortune against the Soca Warriors, easily the best of the Americans’ three semifinal opponents.
St. Vincent has scored only three goals in its four semifinal-round qualifiers while yielding 19. It doesn’t have a single player who’d come anywhere close to making Klinsmann’s team. Yet a far-from-perfect pitch at the Arnos Vale Stadium—a cricket ground—and the mid-day Caribbean heat (there are no floodlights) will be a leveler, and that goal in St. Louis proved that just about anything is possible.
The U.S. is saying all the right things ahead of Friday’s game.
“It’s not easy to go into those Caribbean countries and get the results,” Klinsmann said over the weekend. “So it’s not going to be easy in St. Vincent on a very difficult field with heat and whatever else to get the goals as quickly as possible. We’ve got to be patient, but we have to play with urgency and determination in our approach. That’s how we are going to go and prepare for that game.”
Speaking to reporters in Jacksonville, where the U.S. is training this week, midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, “They were able to score first [in November] and everybody was like ‘Oh my God, panic.’ It’s important for us to get out on the field and from the first minute impose ourselves and don’t take anything for granted. So, it’s important for us to be mentally and physically prepared and be up for the challenge.”
U.S. Soccer in 2016: USMNT and USWNT year in photos
Klinsmann fired, replaced by Arena
Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after the USA's World Cup qualifying loss in Costa Rica, bringing an end to more than five years in charge. He was replaced by Bruce Arena, who returns to the bench after coaching the USA from 1998-2006.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, November 15
The dejected faces on Bobby Wood, left, and John Brooks say it all, as the U.S. drops to 0-2-0 in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal following a 4-0 loss and embarrassment at Costa Rica.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 13
Morgan Brian gets a congratulatory hug after her converted penalty kick, which helped the U.S. women close out 2016 with a 5-0 rout of Romania at StubHub Center in Carson, California.
USMNT vs. Mexico, November 11
Mexico players celebrate Rafa Marquez's late winner, which delivered a 2-1 triumph for El Tri over the USA to open the CONCACAF Hexagonal. It ended years of U.S. domination over Mexico in Columbus.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 10
Crystal Dunn congratulates Christen Press on one of her three goals as the USA handled Romania with ease, winning 8-1 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 23
Carli Lloyd gets a hearty welcome after scoring on a long-range blast to kick-start the U.S. in a 5-1 rout of Switzerland in Minneapolis.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 19
A new-look U.S. women's team routed Switzerland 4-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with Samantha Mewis (3) at the center of the celebrations after scoring the final goal of four-goal second half.
USMNT vs. New Zealand, October 11
Julian Green is congratulated by captain Michael Bradley after scoring the opener, but the U.S. was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw vs. New Zealand in the last game before the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal kicks off.
USMNT vs. Cuba, October 7
Chris Wondolowski scored a goal and assisted on another, as the USA continued World Cup qualifying preparations by beating Cuba 2-0 in a historic friendly in Havana.
USWNT vs. Netherlands, September 18
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal that kicks off the scoring for the USA in a 3-1 win over the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
U.S. women's national team co-captain Carli Lloyd happily signs autographs after scoring a hat trick in a 9-0 romp over Thailand in Columbus, Ohio.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
Megan Rapinoe kneels for the national anthem ahead of the U.S. women's national team's match vs. Thailand, continuing her public protest in line with that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
USMNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, September 6
Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan celebrate during a 4-0 win, which cemented the USA's place atop its World Cup qualifying group and a berth in the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Hope Solo's USWNT contract terminated
Following the USWNT's Olympic loss to Sweden, Hope Solo lashed out at the opposition, calling them "cowards" and drawing the ire of U.S. Soccer. The incident pushed the federation over the edge, and it terminated the goalkeeper's contract while suspending her six months–meaning any chance at reinstatement won't be possible until February.
USWNT vs. Sweden, August 12
The long and stunned faces say it all, as the U.S. women try to comprehend a penalty-kick loss to Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals. The 4-3 PK defeat after a 1-1 draw marked the earliest ouster for the U.S. women in a major competition ever.
USWNT vs. Colombia, August 9
Hope Solo lets a Catalina Usme free kick slip through her hands and legs in a shocking 2-2 draw. The USA still won its Olympic group despite the slip-up.
USWNT vs. France, August 6
Carli Lloyd scores the only goal in a 1-0 win over a stout France side to punch the USA's ticket to the knockout stage at the Olympics.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, August 3
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal in the USA's 2-0 win over New Zealand in their opening match of group play at the Olympics. Alex Morgan doubled the USA's lead in the second half.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, July 22
Christen Press and Carli Lloyd celebrate an easy 4-0 win, which sent the U.S. on its way to Rio with an unbeaten record in 2016.
USWNT vs. South Africa, July 9
Hope Solo salutes the crowd after posting the 100th clean sheet of her career in a 1-0 win in Chicago. Crystal Dunn scored the lone goal.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 25
For a second time at Copa America, the USA falls to Colombia, with Carlos Bacca's goal the difference in a 1-0 result in the third-place match in Arizona.
USMNT vs. Argentina, June 21
Lionel Messi converts an incredible free kick to punctuate a dominant performance for Argentina against the USA in the Copa America semifinals.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, June 16
Goal scorers Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes share a celebratory hug with Matt Besler in the Copa America quarterfinals, where the Americans held on for a 2-1 win and a place in the semis.
USMNT vs. Paraguay, June 11
Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal in a 1-0 win over Paraguay, which secured the USA's place in the Copa America knockout stage.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, June 7
Bobby Wood caps a dominating first half for the USA in a must-win game vs. Costa Rica in Chicago at Copa America. Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi also scored.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 5
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn defends as the U.S. bounces back to shut out Japan 2-0 in a rain-shortened friendly in Cleveland.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 3
James Rodriguez beats Brad Guzan from the penalty spot in Colombia's 2-0 win over the USA to open Copa America Centenario.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 2
Lindsey Horan heads the USA in front to cap a comeback from two goals down, but the Americans conceded in extra time to 10-woman Japan, settling for a 3-3 draw.
USMNT vs. Bolivia, May 29
Christian Pulisic scores his first international goal in the USA's 4-0 win over Bolivia in a final tune-up for Copa America. Gyasi Zardes scored twice, and John Brooks added one of his own in the triumph.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, May 25
Darlington Nagbe is hugged by Christian Pulisic after his 90th-minute volley delivers a 1-0 victory for the USA in a pre-Copa America friendly.
USMNT vs. Puerto Rico, May 22
Tim Ream scores the opening goal in the USA's 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the first meeting between the two sides. Bobby Wood and Paul Arriola scored as well.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 10
Julie Johnston, left, is mobbed after one of her two goals in a 3-0 USA win at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 6
Allie Long, left scores twice, and five other players score as well in a 7-0 rout of Colombia in East Hartford, Connecticut.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Christian Pulisic, 17, makes his U.S. debut in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, becoming cap-tied to the USA. He was otherwise eligible for Croatia.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore celebrate during a thorough 4-0 World Cup qualifying win, putting the USA's campaign back on track after the setback in Guatemala.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 25
There was no way through for DeAndre Yedlin and the USA during a 2-0 loss in Guatemala in what was a stunning setback in the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The USWNT celebrates the inaugural SheBelieves Cup title after beating European powers England, France and Germany in succession.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The U.S. celebrates Alex Morgan's equalizer vs. Germany in the SheBelieves Cup in Boca Raton, Florida. Samantha Mewis's winner a few minutes later cemented the Americans' overall triumph in the competition.
USWNT vs. France, March 6
Alex Morgan scores the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over France in the second game of the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tennessee.
USWNT vs. England, March 3
Crystal Dunn is mobbed after her game-winning goal kicks off the SheBelieves Cup in a 1-0 triumph in Tampa Bay, Florida.
USWNT vs. Canada, February 21
Lindsey Horan celebrates her goal that helps the USA to a 2-0 win over Canada and a first-place finish in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, February 19
Alex Morgan celebrates one of her three goals that helped the U.S. clinch a berth in the 2016 Olympics after a 5-0 triumph in Houston.
USWNT vs. Puerto Rico, February 15
Crystal Dunn scores one of her five goals, tying a single-game U.S. record in a 10-0 rout to close group play in Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Mexico, February 13
The U.S. needed a penalty kick from Carli Lloyd to beat Mexico 1-0 in the second match of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, February 10
Alex Morgan scores the fastest goal in U.S. history, netting 12 seconds into the USWNT's Olympic qualifying campaign and sending the Americans on their way to a 5-0 win.
USMNT vs. Canada, February 5
Jozy Altidore heads in the winner to secure a 1-0 win over Canada at StubHub Center to cap the annual winter training camp.
USMNT vs. Iceland, January 31
Steve Birnbaum heads in a late winner in a 3-2 victory over Iceland in the opening match of the year.
USWNT vs. Ireland, January 23
17-year-old Mallory Pugh scores on her debut, helping cap a 5-0 win for the USA to open the year. Carli Lloyd led the way with a hat trick, and Alex Morgan scored as well in San Diego.
Pleas for Klinsmann to establish greater continuity within the national team appeared to have been answered, at least philosophically, over the past 6-to-8 months. The churn he desired, designed to create depth and competition for places, often seemed to come at the expense of chemistry. But heading into the Copa América there was an established back four and a focus on either a 4-3-3 with Bradley playing more conservatively or a familiar 4-4-2. Permutations had been narrowed down.
Klinsmann liked what he saw, and resolved to allow the players who finished fourth at the Copa to continue working together in qualifying. He intended to call in 21 of the 23 men used this summer. But planning can be a waste of effort for any national team coach.
Clint Dempsey is out with an irregular heartbeat. Gyasi Zardes broke his foot. Jermaine Jones hasn’t played since early July thanks to a bum knee. John Brooks is in Germany with a bad back. Bradley is suspended for Friday’s game. That leaves the veteran spine of the team decimated, and ensures the churn will continue despite Klinsmann’s interest in continuity.
Others will have to step in and lead. In back, Geoff Cameron likely will start alongside Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler. They all have World Cup experience. Kyle Beckerman will be available to keep things stable and structured further forward, while Alejandro Bedoya is a hard-working, skillful midfielder who can play in tight spaces and bring teammates into the game. Graham Zusi is another veteran with big-game experience who should be comfortable performing under pressure
Bradley will return for the Trinidad game, but he won’t want to captain a desperate team. Handling the vagaries of football in the Caribbean requires partnership and poise, and Klinsmann will have to find it with a new-look starting 11. Sacha Kljestan hasn’t played for the U.S. in more than two years, but he’s familiar with the likes of Beckerman and Zusi from MLS play and comfortable covering ground in an attacking midfield role. A quartet featuring those three and Bedoya would maintain the 4-4-2 used toward the end of the Copa, as well as offer smarts and stability while the U.S. found its footing in St. Vincent.
Questions about whether Dempsey, 33, would last through the 2018 World Cup aren’t new, and while no one expected the scary setback revealed last week, the future of the U.S. forward corps always has been on Klinsmann’s radar. Perhaps that future begins in St. Vincent.
Klinsmann has tried and discarded a host of forwards during his tenure but finally may have found what he’s looking for in Wood. The Hawaiian fought his way through the ranks in Germany and overcame a rough start with the U.S. but now is proving himself on both fronts. He scored last weekend in his Bundesliga debut for Hamburger SV and has six goals for his country. Klinsmann has tried him in a wider role in a 4-3-3, but Wood is at his best when he can pick his runs from a more central location. He’s quick, confident and is only growing into his role.
He was a good foil for Dempsey, who liked to lurk and recover while looking for the ball. Whether Wood can partner effectively with Altidore, a classic target forward, is the question now. And it’s one worth trying to answer. Altidore’s quest for consistency has been ravaged by hamstring injuries, but he’s been healthy this month and has four goals in five games for Toronto FC. Wood and Altidore started together against St. Vincent in November, as well as in 2015 friendlies against Peru and Chile. Altidore scored four times in those three games while Wood was on the field.
Whether that partnership blossoms or whether Klinsmann decides to try something else, the future for U.S. forwards looks brighter than it has in a while. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Altidore, Wood and Jordan Morris led the U.S. in Russia two years from now. And with Aron Jóhannsson and Terrence Boyd returning from long-term injury while Rubio Rubin, Julian Green and Fafa Picault continue to make their way in Europe, there should be plenty of players fighting to maintain Dempsey’s legacy whenever his international career comes to a close.