Two years ago next month, the United States faced a Central American country in what was considered a "must-win" game.
The stakes are different this afternoon. Today’s game against Panama is a friendly; the game against Costa Rica a World Cup qualifier. In all other respects, it is astonishing how many parallels exist between then and now. Even more disturbing: the similarities in distress. For all that the United States might’ve accomplished in 2014, those similarities paint a depressing picture of a program that has made no forward progress, and in fact, has regressed under the stewardship of Jurgen Klinsmann.
Going into the Costa Rica game, the USMNT was in turmoil. Klinsmann took over in July of 2011, but early promises of attractive, possession-based soccer had fizzled away under a tough combination of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers. This passage might sound familiar:
The Yanks have been strong starters in many of this cycle's qualifiers, yet salting away early leads proved difficult in Honduras, Jamaica and Guatemala. A more comprehensive 90-minute display against Costa Rica will be necessary, not only in terms of securing victory, but also quieting doubters - whose voices have grown louder and more insistent this week – and steadying the ship for further challenges ahead.
That turmoil was crowned by a blockbuster piece by Brian Straus — then of the Sporting News, now of SI — detailing a United States locker room in the verge of mutiny against Klinsmann. The team was divided between American-born players and a German cohort largely recruited by Klinsmann and former U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen. Players complained about Klinsmann’s focus on anything but tactics and preparation for matches:
"We do all this stuff. OK, it's good for us and it's scientifically proven. But in the end it's a round ball. The Pelés and the Maradonas in the world weren't doing all these things," a U.S. player said. "I think we spend more time worrying about gyms and nutrition, and we don't do enough of what we need to do on the field."
Another source said the players are "overtrained and undercoached."
This is what we’re trying to tell them. This is what we’re trying to introduce to them. They’re challenged," he said. "Some guys are out of their comfort zone, absolutely. It’s not actually the coach that has to adjust to the players, to kind of think about it, ‘How do I communicate it perfectly (and) correctly to the players?’
"It’s actually the players’ job to take the information from the coach, with whatever personality the coach has and let it kind of sink into his own system. ... Now, I have to implement it in my own way. It’s a learning process, and that’s fine.
Straus' article focused around the 2-1 loss to Honduras in San Pedro Sula. The players' criticisms of Klinsmann were scathing:
"(Klinsmann) didn't really say how we were going to play. It was a quick turnaround," one U.S. player recalled. "He just basically said, ‘Guys, we know the importance of the game. We know it's going to be a tough game down here. They made it a national holiday. They're going do everything they can.
" ‘They're going to bite, kick and scratch. They're going to do everything to take you out of your game. But at the end of the day, it's a game. The ball doesn't change. The way we play doesn't change. So just go out there and represent yourselves well.' "
Honduras certainly did kick-around and through a ponderous U.S. team hoping to survive with an inexperienced back four, a lack of width and the absence of a midfield playmaker who might help possess the ball and alter the tempo.
It looked so much like the September setback in Jamaica that one source said, "You're judged as a coach based on what he learned from the first round of qualifying. Nothing."
And here's Klinsmann after that qualifying loss to Honduras:
"We gave away too many opportunities to this Honduras team, and they took advantage. Too many players didn’t reach their usual potential," he said. "Too many players kind of were underneath their usual performance."
In the wake of a loss against Chile two weeks ago — where the U.S. started out promisingly, leading twice, only to wilt in the second half and lose 3-2 — the same questions rose once more. Klinsmann’s tactically naïve, at best. He’s overtraining players physically. He’s not a good fit as national team coach.
Klinsmann’s response — now, as then — was essentially same: Players weren’t ready. The fans and the media don’t understand what the national team needs. Only Klinsmann does, so can we all please shut the hell up, and let him get on with things?
The United States won 1-0 against Costa Rica in March 22, 2013. That victory — in a legendarily swirling blizzard — kickstarted the United States’ qualifying campaign, propelled them to a historic winning streak that saw them win the 2013 Gold Cup, and ended with the Americans "winning" the Hexagonal, as archrival Mexico crashed into a World Cup qualifying playoff against New Zealand. That Mexico was even able to do that was due to the United States’ breaking Panamanian hearts in a late, late victory.
The United States play Panama today. The Americans have an 11-1-2 overall record over Panama; their only loss coming in the group stage of the 2011 Gold Cup, and that loss was avenged in the knockout stages of that tourney. In a vacuum, you’d imagine a stroll about the Stub Hub Center for USMNT, an easy victory to erase the bad taste of the Chile loss.
But this Canalero team is hungry for revenge over the United States. Moreover, Panama is enjoying their greatest generation of players ever, with more in the pipeline. Last month, their U-20 team stunned the Americans in Jamaica during the CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament. That win earned the Canaleros an automatic berth into the World Cup, and it came against a heralded group of U.S. players expected to win one of those berths.
Six players from that team will feature for Panama’s team today: Ismael Diaz, Fidel Escobar, Chin Hormechea, Michael Murillo, Luis Pereira and Jhamal Rodríguez. Pereira won the Golden Ball at the qualifying tournament, and he’ll be dangerous player for the American defense to track.
In contrast, the USMNT is in a historic funk. They’ve only won one of their last nine games. From the beginning of last year’s World Cup, 14 of the 17 goals opponents have scored against the U.S. came in the second half; nine came in the last ten minutes of the game. It has been outscored 9-0 in the second half of its last five games.
With the loss to Chile, it is now winless in five straight games for the first time since 2007. At one point under Klinsmann, the U.S. was 19-0-2 when leading at the half; it is now 0-2-2. Since 2013, the U.S. has given up eight goals in the first ten minutes over 39 games; they only allowed seven such goals in 101 games between 2007 and 2012. It has allowed nine goals in three games for the first time since 1993.
If the USMNT hopes to win only its second game since last summer’s World Cup, something has to change. But what? Here’s the scary thing: this is probably the "easiest" game the USMNT has left. Its next five games are away against Denmark and Switzerland, at home against Mexico, and away against the Netherlands and Germany.
It’s time for Klinsmann to channel Al Pacino. Anything else, and it’s entirely possible that the United States crashes into the Gold Cup bereft of any wins in this calendar year.
HOW TO WATCH
Game time: 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m PT, on ESPN and Univision
Match venue: Stub Hub Centre, Los Angeles, CA
Livestream: There are two -- ESPN and Univision.
GOALKEEPERS: Jaime Penedo (LA Galaxy, USA), Jose Calderon (Deportivo Coatepeque, GUA)
DEFENDERS: Leonel Parris (Tauro FC), Fidel Escobar (Sporting San Miguelito), Harold Cummings (Santa Fe, COL), Luis Ovalle (Zamora FC , VEN), Eric Davis (Sporting San Miguelito), Chin Hormechea (Arabe Unido), Michael Murillo (San Francisco FC).
MIDFIELDERS: Anibal Godoy (Budapest Honved FC, HUN), Marco Sanchez (Táchira, VEN), Jhamal Rodríguez ( Chorrillo FC), Luis Pereira (Arabe Unido), Ricardo Buitrago (Plaza Amador), Hécgar Murillo (Tauro FC).
FORWARDS: Blas Perez (FC Dallas, USA), Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids, USA), Rolando Blackburn (Communicaciones, GUA), Ismael Diaz (Tauro FC), Alfredo Stephens (Chorrillo FC), Jairo Glaize (Sporting San Miguelito).