Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as U.S. national team coaches has had its ups and downs, which can happen with a coach trying to transform a program, but there was something different about Friday's stunning loss to Guatemala that feels like rock bottom.
In the past nine months, U.S. fans have watched their team finish fourth at the Gold Cup and lose in the CONCACAF Cup to archrival Mexico. As painful as those results were, it was Friday's embarrassing defeat against Guatemala — which hadn't beaten the U.S. since 1988 — that felt like it just might be the beginning of the end for the charismatic and enigmatic German coach.
Guatemala — a country ranked 95th in the world — made the U.S. look like amateurs. Guatemala — a national team that barely got by Bermuda and Antigua and Barbuda to even reach this round of World Cup qualifying — came within a crossbar of hanging a 3-0 on the Americans. Guatemala — a team whose most prominent player is a 37-year-old forward closer to being his federation's president than an effective professional player — beat the U.S. for the first time in nearly three decades and it was by no means a fluke.
The first clue Friday night could be a disaster for the U.S. was Klinsmann's starting lineup, which felt more like the result of darts being thrown at a board than a team created by careful consideration. Klinsmann playing players out of position isn't new, but he took it to a new level.
DeAndre Yedlin? Never mind that he's a starting right back in the English Premier League — play him on the right wing, where his technical deficiencies are exposed. Geoff Cameron? He's versatile enough to play a multiple positions, but why put him where he has the least influence? Michael Orozco? So what if he can't even make the bench for Club Tijuana — start him at left center back, a position he hasn't played much for the national team before, if at all.
The perplexing decisions go on and on, and taken together, they make it impossible to have much sympathy for Klinsmann, even if he did lose Matt Besler and John Brooks to injuries this week, and Fabian Johnson to a club injury last weekend.
For what definitely isn't the first time, Klinsmann responded to injuries by trotting out an inexplicable lineup, almost as if he honestly believes it doesn't matter how disastrous a team he uses as long as he has the excuse of key players being injured.
Perhaps more damning than his mind-boggling lineup was how his team played. Past U.S. squads have had struggles in Guatemala — managing just a 1-0-4 record in qualifiers in the Central American country before Friday — but none of those U.S. teams was so thoroughly outplayed. The Americans came out flat and zombie-walked through the first half. They did create chances in the second half, but must were thwarted by relatively easy saves. Guatemala, in turn, toyed with the U.S. at times, even drawing ole chants from the Guatemala City crowd.
The U.S. looked flat-out lost and Klinsmann must shoulder the blame. Whether or not he is giving his team what he considers proper instructions, his days as U.S. coach have to be numbered if his players aren't playing for him.
Not because the U.S. is in any real danger of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying, but because once a coach loses his team it is near impossible to get it back. Friday's match was the first time a Klinsmann-coached U.S. team looked like it simply didn't have the desire to play for its boss. Klinsmann had to see that too, and he responded much the way so many struggling managers in the same situation have — by placing the blame on his players.
As much as Klinsmann has never met a buck he wouldn't pass, his post-match remarks after Friday's loss sounded particularly ominous. He placed the blame on Guatemala's opening goal on a blown assignment he insisted he went over beforehand, then Klinsmann fired a clear shot at his team when asked why the U.S. started so poorly.
"That's a good question for the players," Klinsmann told reporters in Guatemala City.
Another good question for U.S. players would be whether they still believe in their coach, and if they think they can win with Klinsmann in charge. Chances are none of them will criticize Klinsmann publicly, but if some or all of them want him fired, their performance Friday did more to make that a possibility than any words could.
This isn't the first time Klinsmann has faced adversity after a World Cup qualifying loss in Central America. The loss was to Honduras three years ago, and Klinsmann appeared to be on shaky ground before his team responded with a snow-covered win against Costa Rica that provided the impetus for the best stretch of Klinsmann's time in charge of the U.S.
As tough as that Honduras defeat was, it didn't feel anywhere near as disastrous as Friday's loss in Guatemala. It will be up to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to decide whether Klinsmann's time has coach has reached a breaking point, and whether waiting any longer to make a change could have terrible consequences.
Gulati made it clear in November that Klinsmann doesn't have ironclad job security. Friday's loss will put that notion to its toughest test yet.