Graham Parker: The United States 2-0 loss to Guatemala in Fridays World Cup qualifier showed a team that seems to exist in a permanently provisional state
The most alarming thing about the USAs 2-0 loss in Guatemala City might not have been the result though that in itself will have ramifications that will ripple through at least the rest of the year. It was how routine it has come to feel for the USA, under Jrgen Klinsmann, to underwhelm when they need a result.
Instead of revealing new talent, or new combinations for existing talent, Klinsmanns post-World Cup experimental selections and formations (seemingly in pursuit of an endlessly deferred first-choice team) have become the default mode for the USA.
The team feels as if it exists in a permanently provisional state. Thats true even in the competitive scenarios (a Gold Cup semi-final, a Concacaf Cup playoff, a World Cup qualifying road game) where youd feel a team should at very least know itself.
Down 2-0 in Guatemala on Friday night, and needing to impose themselves on a compact home defense, the USA didnt seem to know what they were trying to impose indeed, who they were trying to impose.
Its not to say that run fast, try hard (to paraphrase Matthew Doyles take on the historic ethos of US Soccer) is an adequate ambition for an international team that wants to punch their weight at the levels the USA aspires to. And Klinsmann came in with a mandate to transform not just the team but the system that produces the team, and to be fair to him, there have been myriad interventions that he has made within the bureaucracy of the national game that needed to happen, even if theyre not the type of actions that make for sensational headlines.
But the team drifted into a pattern of late losses in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup and even allowing for eye-catching friendly wins in the Netherlands and Germany last year, they appear to have stayed in that state of drift since.
Theres a paradox here. Klinsmanns ideal schedule for preparation for the 2018 World Cup included participation in the Confederations Cup, Olympics, Copa America and ideally, qualification for the Hex prior to the latter two. He had a definite vision of how and when he wanted to cycle new players into the team to peak perfectly for the World Cup against ideal opposition. Yet he has not put the teams in place to win the games to make that schedule happen. Asked to cohere on demand, the USA have instead fallen apart against notionally inferior but better-organized opposition.
Guatemala on the road was always going to be a tricky game, though few anticipated a scenario worse than a physical battle and maybe a scrappy draw. But Klinsmann elected to experiment again. Granted, the injuries to John Brooks and Matt Besler may have forced his hand in selecting Omar Gonzalez and Michael Orozco at center half (he may have looked wistfully at Tim Parker and Matt Miazgas performances for the U-23s in Colombia earlier in the day). But knowing hed be trying out another unfamiliar center back pairing, not to mention giving Edgar Castillo his first start since 2014 outside them, Klinsmann decided to partner Michael Bradley with Mix Diskerud in midfield, rather than the trusted physical presence of Kyle Beckerman, who would at least have shielded the defense as his primary duty.
Diskerud ended up concluding a difficult week in which he was named the most overrated player in MLS in an ESPN poll of his peers with a poor half of soccer. He stumbled horribly to gift Guatemala their opener, and asked to perform in a holding role when Bradley stepped up, At best he looked anonymous. He was replaced by the lively Darlington Nagbe at half-time and could have no complaints. Hes started the season well playing in the center for NYCFC, but could soon be shunted out wide to accommodate the returning Frank Lampard. For the USA too, Diskeruds yet to find a comfortable position for his talents.
But hes hardly alone. In mitigation for Diskerud, he wasnt set up to succeed by his coach. The basic errors that gifted Guatemala their goals were not Klinsmanns fault, but the incoherent team that tried to recover was.
And yes, a US optimist, or a head coach, might argue that but for better finishing past an inspired Paulo Motta in the Guatemala goal, that all this might be moot, but the fact is that theres a sense of inevitability about these sorts of results at the moment. Had the USA drawn, or even won in Guatemala, it would have been possible to kick the can down the road a little with this team, but you get the feeling that a performance and result like this would still have been waiting, and probably when it mattered most.
So now there are more obstacles to avoid. A win on Friday night and again in Columbus on Tuesday would have assured the US of qualification for the Hex. Instead, with Guatemala ahead of them in the group, the Columbus game becomes a must win, just to keep the USAs destiny in their own hands. The US could feasibly end up playing Trinidad and Tobago in their final game, with both sides needing a win to advance. Would you bet on the current US team in that scenario?