Juergen Klinsmann looked more tired than relieved Tuesday after his U.S. soccer team rescued its World Cup qualifying campaign with a 4-0 victory over Guatemala.
“It's been a long couple of days,” he said with a weak chuckle as he slumped wearily into a folding chair.
Days that included an embarrassing 2-0 loss in Guatemala, withering criticism of his lineup choices and renewed calls for his ouster. So as much as Klinsmann needed a win Tuesday, he also needed it to come in convincing fashion.
And his team responded with its most complete performance in nearly a year, using goals from Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore to turn a pressure-packed game into a laugher.
“A huge compliment to every one of them for a very clear message that we are on top of the game and we're in the driver's seat again,” Klinsmann said.
Well, not quite. Trinidad & Tobago still leads the four-team, fourth-round qualifying group with 10 points, three better than the U.S. But the win pushed the Americans into second, a point in front of Guatemala with two September qualifiers remaining against Trinidad & Tobago and St. Vincent & Grenadines. The top two teams qualify for the final round, and that leaves Klinsmann's team in control of its own destiny — a destiny that was very much in doubt a couple of long days ago.
“We needed a big reaction. And I think everybody had that same mind-set,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “It was just all about responding tonight.”
Added Galaxy attacker Gyasi Zardes: “As soon as the ref blew the whistle, everybody was switched on. We were together throughout the whole 90 minutes.”
Zardes got together with Dempsey a dozen minutes after that whistle blew, taking two Guatemalan defenders with him when he ran under a Cameron long ball into the penalty area. That left Dempsey, who was trailing the play, free and after the ball took a fortunate bounce off Zardes' left shoulder, Dempsey had an open net to shoot at.
Cameron doubled the lead in the 35th minute by nodding home a Michael Bradley free kick. And when Zusi scored off another Zardes assist just minutes after the break, the rout was on.
Zusi, who wasn't even called up to the team until Sunday afternoon, was one of five new starters employed by Klinsmann after last week's loss. Klinsmann also moved Cameron back to central defense, his more comfortable position, and pushed DeAndre Yedlin from the wing into his more natural position as a right back.
“These are the adjustments you have to make. And we made them and it worked out,” Klinsmann said.
It was the fourth lineup Klinsmann has started in as many qualifiers. The two previous U.S. national team coaches, a U.S. Soccer spokesman said, combined to use the same lineup only three times in 210 games.
“So much for consistency,” Klinsmann said with a smile.
Altidore, who came on midway through the second half, finished the scoring in the final minute of regulation with his 34th international goal. Among Americans, only Dempsey and Landon Donovan have more.
And on the other end a U.S. stubborn defense anchored by Cameron and Steve Birnbaum allowed just one shot to get through to goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who made the easy save.
All in all, it was a dominating performance.
Now Klinsmann and his team have two months to continue regrouping before opening play in June's Copa America, where they were drawn into a challenging group that includes Colombia, Paraguay and Costa Rica. That will be followed by more World Cup qualifiers in the fall.
But after Tuesday's performance, those are games the U.S. can look forward to with confidence, not dread.
“It was crucial,” Dempsey said of the win. “If we didn't win tonight, we were going to be in a really tough spot. Now we're sitting better, but we've still got work to do.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and a lot about the character of this team by how we were able to bounce back with that pressure.”
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