The United States will open the final round of World Cup qualifying on Friday night against Mexico (7 p.m. ET on FS1), making it their second straight Hex with Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm. The Americans are in Year 6 of Klinsmann’s reign and, with his second World Cup creeping ever closer, there’s an uncomfortable and disappointing truth to confront — the U.S. aren’t any better now than they were heading into the Hex last time around.
The Americans went 4-1-1 in the semifinal round of qualifying this cycle. That’s the exact same record they had in the semifinal round of 2014 qualifying.
And consider the starting lineup for the Americans’ first Hex match last cycle: Tim Howard, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
It’s possible that seven of those players could start on Friday, while Cameron and Dempsey almost certainly would have started were they not injured.
Nearly four years later and Klinsmann hasn’t really found a new first team. A better first team. A more evolved first team. They are essentially the same team, which isn’t an indictment on the players. After all, they’ve played well enough to keep their spots, but this team was supposed to get better and they haven’t. The results show it and the personnel shows it.
There is no clear, identifiable style for the team. If a player gets hurt or can’t play — like Jones — they play completely differently. Their style is determined by the players available to them, which is an indictment on the program’s system — one that doesn’t exist.
Even compared to their chief rivals, Mexico, the U.S. are right where they were. They’re perfectly competent and favorites to win in Columbus on Friday, as they usually are, but it’s not against a powerhouse El Tri. They’re a team whose manager is on the hot seat and whose future is in question. Just like little has changed for the U.S., the same is true of Mexico’s standing, but Mexico are only a year into their attempt to change their program under Juan Carlos Osorio. Klinsmann is in Year 6.
That’s not to say the U.S. are bad. They are just largely the same team they’ve been for years, which is one of the best teams in the region and good enough to challenge for a spot in the World Cup knockout stages if things break right. That’s nothing to sneeze at and, 26 years removed from a 40-year World Cup drought, a rather remarkable rise. But Klinsmann wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo, and that makes the stagnation problematic.
Even in the Americans’ run at Copa America Centenario, a supposed breakthrough, there was little to indicate that the team had really turned a corner. They beat Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador, all fine teams, but not a single great team in the bunch. No one that the Americans have been as good as or better than for more than a decade. And when they did face teams better than them they were beaten handily by Argentina and Colombia. That wasn’t progress, just a confirmation of what’s long been there.
But there is hope for the future and making good on everything Klinsmann was brought in to do. And that’s the kids.
"It’s getting younger and younger," Jones said when asked about the difference between this team and the one from four years ago. "And the guys are pushing. You can see, especially now with Pulisic who’s pushing for a spot in the team. We have a young squad."
That’s not entirely true, at least not with the first team. Bobby Wood, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin have all made their way into the starting lineup at times, but that’s about it. There are still generally older veterans in the first team, but the kids are definitely pushing. Julian Green, Lynden Gooch and Jordan Morris are right there, along with the budding superstar Pulisic, and it may not be long before they are starting for the Americans.
And it is those kids who will determine whether the U.S. is better at the 2018 World Cup than they were at the 2014 World Cup. The Americans could take the field in Russia with a team that includes Pulisic, Wood, Green and Morris in the attack, Brooks and Yedlin at the back and Gooch in the midfield, maybe with someone like Kellyn Acosta. That would be a drastic departure from the team they took to Brazil and the makings of a major step forward for the program, with skillful and dynamic players capable of bringing with them a new system that can potentially be passed down to the next generation.
So yes, it’s almost impossible to argue that the team that enters this Hex is better than the team that entered the Hex last time around. And that’s problematic, especially for Klinsmann, whose job is contingent on advancing the program. If you had to hand out grades today, Klinsmann’s would be a solid C, and worse when graded on a curve based on his unique task. But report cards aren’t due yet. Check back in two years, where a C is still very much possible, but so is an A.
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