As we sift through the rubble of last night’s 3-2 Mexico victory over the USMNT, Jürgen Klinsmann finds himself squarely in the spotlight. The high stakes one-off is a disappointing setback for the program, and an occasion to soberly evaluate the course that Klinsmann has charted for it. The U.S. will miss out on the 2017 Confederations Cup, and people are fed up. MLS’s Matt Doyle has called for his head. Landon Donovan agrees with him.
Lost in all this is the simple fact that the United States Men’s National Team, as currently constructed, aren’t that good. They shouldn’t be beating Mexico because Mexico are better.
The USMNT have had a weirdly decent record against their rivals lately (3-0-3 since Klinsmann took over), but that says a lot more about Mexican underachievement than U.S. improvement. Where the U.S. has kept the same core of players together for a while, Mexico have gone through coaches at an alarming clip, exiled one of their best players for a while, and generally struggled for continuity.
But this is a team that could have beaten the Netherlands in the World Cup last year, were it not for nefarious officiating. They have at least five players better than the U.S.’s best player. Liga MX has a consistent pipeline that sends young players—like Tecatito Corona (Porto), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica), and Andrés Guardado (PSV)—to Champions League teams. Their underachievement has nothing to do with talent deficit.
On the other hand, the USMNT are a cobbled together mishmash of MLSers, fringe players in England, and Germans. The team has gotten results, but the process is missing. This is the ill Klinsmann came here to remedy, but you can’t expect him to come in and immediately graft on flair and style to a group of players incapable of animating that style. Americans want a team capable of playing toe-to-toe with the Spanish or the Brazilians, but no amount of coaching will change the fact that the current team isn’t good enough to.
Take last night: the first goal the Americans scored was a nice set piece header from a center back. Anytime the team tried to unlock a packed-in Mexican defense, they were easily rebuffed. Michael Bradley is playing as a sort of no. 10 because he’s the best creator, but he’s not right for the role. Mexico earned 63% of the possession and took 23 shots to the U.S.’s 14. Stats aside, they created far more dangerous opportunities.
The team had to go for a result last night against a better team, thus, ugly soccer. Klinsmann will eventually be judged on how well he can win important games and create fluid soccer at the same time, but that’s impossible right now.
Klinsmann needs to fix this, but his job is a long-term project. The success or failure of the Klinsmann era won’t hinge on how well the Bob Bradley leftovers do in a made-up final for the right to partake in a few trumped-up friendlies. If the U.S. Soccer program is to find the kind of success it desires, it will be through the next generation of players. It’s perhaps heartening, then, that the Americans’ second equalizer came from some nice combination play between two young guys Klinsmann has integrated into the senior team, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood:
If any game yesterday was a problem sign for Klinsmann, it was the U-23’s loss to Honduras in Olympic qualifying. Last night’s loss is disappointing blow, but it should not be seen as some referendum on Klinsmann’s tenure.
Photo via AP