Former United States national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann believes the nation could have had a run to the World Cup semi-finals this summer had they actually qualified for the tournament.
Klinsmann led the U.S. to the round of 16 in 2014, only to be knocked out by Belgium in extra time.
The manager proceeded to have mixed results after that, losing in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup semi-final to Jamaica, then in the CONCACAF Cup to Mexico, though he did lead the USMNT on an impressive semi-final run in the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
Ultimately, losses to Mexico and at Costa Rica cost Klinsmann his position as head coach two games into the final stage of World Cup qualifying. The USMNT ultimately fell short when, under replacement Bruce Arena, they failed to get a result in a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago on the final day of World Cup qualifying.
But despite the struggles that saw them eliminated from Russia before the tournament even began, Klinsmann thinks the USMNT could have pulled off a miraculous run to the final four of the tournament.
“I realistically saw a group growing into the World Cup 2018 that could go into a semi-final,” Klinsmann told Yahoo Sports.
Given the failure of the team to qualify from what was considered a forgiving region in CONCACAF, that statement may seem odd. However, there is some truth to the idea qualifying doesn’t necessarily provide a clue into World Cup performance.
The USMNT’s best World Cup in the modern era – a quarter-final run that ended in a 1-0 defeat to Germany in 2002 – came after a qualification campaign where the nation nearly missed out.
Mexico, after qualifying via the playoff against New Zealand 2014, were minutes away from advancing to the quarter-finals before two late goals saw eventual semi-finalist the Netherlands get past El Tri.
And Klinsmann argued that World Cups are simply a different animal for the players involved.
“The World Cup has nothing to do with the four years prior to that. It’s a completely new chapter,” he said.
“Whenever I played in a World Cup or European Championship, it gave me so much energy. I don’t know why. I could have had a shit season before that tournament, and suddenly that tournament brought me to life. Whatever happened the last couple of months before didn’t matter.”
Klinsmann also pointed to his own experience with Germany as evidence.
“We almost didn’t qualify for Italy in 1990 with Germany,” he added. “We had to win our last game against Wales, and I still remember that Mark Hughes missed a 100-percent chance two minutes before the end of the game. He had a free header and he put it over the bar. If he puts that in, we’re not going to Italy. And then we won the World Cup.”
But as luck saw the U.S. hit the post against Trinidad and Tobago, rather than tying up the game and qualifying, Klinsmann’s theory will forever remain a hypothetical.