If there’s been one constant in Jurgen Klinsmann’s five-year reign atop the U.S. national soccer team, it’s inconsistency, with every invigorating high followed by a devastating low.
In his second full year as U.S. coach, Klinsmann won 16 games — 13 of them in a row — and compiled a .761 winning percentage, all national team records. The next year the U.S. went 6-5-4 and got thumped by Ireland.
In 2013 the U.S. rolled through the Gold Cup unbeaten, outscoring opponents, 20-4. Two years later the Americans didn’t even make the final.
But now the team has hit rock bottom and it’s hard to see it bouncing back this time. Less than five months after taking the U.S. to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario, Klinsmann was badly outcoached by Mexico’s Juan Carlos Osorio in one World Cup qualifier, then watched helplessly as his team was badly outplayed on the road by Costa Rica, 4-0, on Tuesday.
In the span of five days Klinsmann became the first U.S. coach to lose in the national team’s fortress of Columbus, Ohio, which also made him the first U.S. coach in 15 years to lose a Cup qualifier on home soil. He followed that with the most one-sided qualifying loss since 1980 and the most one-sided shutout loss in 59 years.
Whether it proves fatal or not is up to Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. Gulati chased Klinsmann for years before finally hiring him in 2011. He then extended his contract and expanded his responsibilities by making him technical director for the national team program in 2013.
And he has had his coach’s back through all of the ups and downs, saying only last week that he expected Klinsmann to remain as coach through the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
He wasn’t nearly as upbeat after the beat-down in Costa Rica.
“Was the result embarrassing? Yes,” he said. “I’m very disappointed, obviously.”
World Cup qualifying doesn’t resume until March, giving Gulati plenty of time to consider his options. But there doesn’t seem to be much to consider, because his choices are basically stay the course and stick with Klinsmann and hope for another rebound, or cut his losses and replace him with Galaxy coach and former U.S. coach Bruce Arena, the only man with the experience, resume and gravitas to take over this late in a qualifying cycle.
Either way the U.S. will be facing must-win games against Honduras and Panama in March, so there will be little room for error.
Klinsmann’s supporters will point to a number of extenuating circumstances to argue the coach deserves to stay. The U.S. opened the qualifying tournament against the two toughest teams in the region, for example, and played the second game in Costa Rica, where no U.S. coach has ever won.
Plus the team was missing forward Jordan Morris and World Cup veterans Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman, all of whom are dealing with health issues. And finally, there are eight games left in a qualifying tournament that is extremely forgiving, giving Klinsmann plenty of time to turn things around.
Mexico won one of its first eight games in 2013, yet still made it to the World Cup.
However it’s difficult to find anything positive in the last two games. Midfielders Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley — players Klinsmann called “difference makers” — were well beyond ineffective. Center back John Brooks, so good in the Copa America, was horrible in the past week, committing mistakes that led directly to the game-winning goal against Mexico and contributed to three of the four Costa Rica scores.
Omar Gonzalez and Timmy Chandler weren’t much better.
When a team falls apart so quickly and so completely it’s generally not the players who are at fault. Instead the blame goes to the coach for either picking the wrong players or for putting them in position to fail. The last week wasn’t the first time Klinsmann’s strange lineup choices, odd formations and tactical shortcomings have ended in failure and now it seems many on the team are no longer responding to their coach.
Yet in the wake of Tuesday’s humiliating loss Klinsmann pointed to his roller-coaster record to suggest success is just around the corner.
“[Five] months ago we were in the semifinals of Copa America. And now we have two defeats in the start of the hexagonal,” he said. “That’s how fast it can go in sport and soccer. Things can turn around very, very quickly.
“It’s for us now a negative moment. No doubt about it. But after a negative one there’s comes a positive one again.”
It’s hard to see that happening this time.