U.S.' task clear amid adversity: win at home
DENVER -- You have to win your home games.
It's the cardinal rule of World Cup qualifying for any team in CONCACAF, including the U.S., which meets Costa Rica here in the first big home game of 2013 on Friday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas). If you win your home games and tie your road games, you'll finish with 20 points in this six-team, 10-game Hexagonal -- and you'll make it to the World Cup (barring some crazy anomaly) with ample room to spare.
That's why, early in the tournament, I tend to focus more on whether teams are holding serve with the win-at-home, tie-on-the-road mantra. So even though the U.S. was the only Hex team to lose in Matchday 1, coach Jurgen Klinsmann's outfit wasn't the biggest underperformer. Mexico and Panama dropped two points each at home, leaving the hold-serve standings looking like this:
Costa Rica (0)
Is the sky falling on the U.S. after losing at Honduras? Nope. Is there a decent chance the U.S. will have more Hexagonal points than Mexico heading into their rivalry game at the Azteca on Tuesday? Yes. (Mexico, which tied Jamaica at home last month, has to hit the road on Friday to face a tough Honduras team.) But the U.S.' home game against Costa Rica is even more important than the one at Mexico -- not just to bag three important points, but also to change the vibe around Klinsmann's team.
This week's exposé by the Sporting News cited 11 unnamed U.S. players with complaints and criticisms about Klinsmann and his staff, raising questions about tactical preparation, communication, a focus on fitness over soccer and the incorporation of several new German-Americans into the team.
On the one hand, players on any team in the world complain about their coach at times, especially when they can do so anonymously and especially when results could be better on the field. But the quantity and the specificity of the U.S. player concerns were striking. It's a red flag when players say they don't know their roles and don't feel prepared tactically for a game -- and it echoes concerns about Klinsmann and his top assistant, Martín Vásquez, that existed when they had the same roles at Bayern Munich. (Philipp Lahm detailed those specifics in his book.)
Just as problematic is the idea that the German-American players have not been accepted in the team, although U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard told Soccer By Ives on Wednesday he disagreed with that characterization.
At the same time, some of the unnamed players' issues came off as unnecessary bellyaching, such as the complaints over Klinsmann's policy of informing the players of the starting lineup on the day of the game. That's the exact same thing Sir Alex Ferguson does at Manchester United, and it seems to have worked pretty well for him.
"I always said we are a team in transition," said Klinsmann when I asked him about the story here on Thursday. "I always said between two cycles there's a lot of work for the coaches and for the team as well. That being said, it's normal that we have to move players out of comfort zones. We have to introduce them to different methods because we want them better at the end of the day. If we do it the same way everything was done before, we are not improving."
"I don't have any problems with [the story]," he went on. "Obviously, I prefer that when people have any type of problems with me, come to me and talk to me about it. And then [you'll avoid] so-called anonymous quotes where you don't know who actually said it."
Make no mistake, the Sporting News piece has given Friday's game an even sharper edge, raising the stakes even higher. The two previous U.S. coaches, Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, never had a group of players call them out in public like this, anonymously or otherwise. Bradley, in particular, was constantly reminding his players to keep things "on the inside," not least because he knew what could happen if any dissension went public.
So we shouldn't have been surprised on Wednesday when midfielder Michael Bradley, Bob's son, so pointedly argued that player complaints should be kept on the inside.
Calling the anonymous criticisms "shameful" and "embarrassing," Bradley, 25, told reporters it was common for players in any team to have private concerns and issues. But "you cross the line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team, outside of the inner circle," Bradley said. "So for me it doesn't help anybody. It doesn't help anything that we're trying to do this week."
"Part of [playing in a team] means having the balls to say things to guys to their face and having the balls to say things in front of the team," Bradley continued. "And I think in those ways it's really disappointing that now in a week as important as this, in a week where so much is on the line, that you'd have something like that happen."
In the short term, Bradley is probably right. These are high-tension games, and wondering who The Unnamed Eleven are is likely counter-productive right now. But in the long term, this episode may not be a bad thing for Klinsmann's team. Just as Landon Donovan's criticisms of David Beckham in 2009 may have been necessary for them to bury the hatchet and move on, leading to two MLS Cup titles as L.A. Galaxy teammates, it's possible that better communication inside Klinsmann's team may result from the honesty in the Sporting News story. Hérculez Gómez argued as much Wednesday.
What's more, Bradley's comments are those of a leader, one who will wear the captain's armband for the U.S. in due time. Meanwhile, Klinsmann has named Clint Dempsey the captain for these two games in the absence of Carlos Bocanegra (who wasn't called up) and the injured Howard (who was the captain last month). Klinsmann's decision on Dempsey is intriguing: He'd like the experienced Dempsey to have more responsibility within the team, and he knows exactly what he's going to get from Bradley leadership-wise, armband or no armband.
Ultimately, the fact remains in World Cup qualifying: You have to win your home games. Klinsmann was hired not just to qualify the U.S. for the World Cup, but also to be a change agent for the national team. Those are two very different tasks, and sometimes they compete directly with each other. But the U.S. still must qualify, a task made easier by the relatively easy path in CONCACAF (in which four of the six teams will likely reach Brazil 2014).
The range of potential views on Klinsmann by next Wednesday is fascinating, from "fire him now" to "he's a genius." Such is the nature of sports. But while I could be wrong, I can't envision U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati firing Klinsmann after this week, even if the U.S. were to lose twice. Gulati spent years pursuing Klinsmann before finally landing him, and U.S. Soccer is paying Klinsmann a guaranteed $2.5 million a year through the end of 2014. (Nor can I envision Gulati hiring the obvious replacement, Arena, who burned his bridges publicly with Gulati in 2006 after Gulati let him go as the U.S. coach.)
My sense is the U.S. will find a way to win against Costa Rica, even with an injury-depleted roster, and then fight hard but not take away any points from Mexico (as the U.S. has done in every World Cup qualifier there but one). Klinsmann will stay in his job, and the U.S. will keep in the mix when it comes to World Cup qualifying heading into three big games in June.
Two of those games will be at home. And you have to win your home games.
Bradley, as much as anyone, understands that. Everything else is forgotten if you get the results you need.
"The best part about sports is that when you step on the field, you have a chance to put everything right," Bradley said Wednesday. "And so our chance is on Friday night."