Klinsmann, USMNT left in sad state after extra-time loss to Mexico

Klinsmann, USMNT left in sad state after extra-time loss to Mexico

PASADENA, Calif. – Jurgen Klinsmann looked solemn.

Jurgen Klinsmann almost never looks solemn, but late Saturday night, following his United States men's national team's painful 3-2 extra-time loss to regional nemesis Mexico in a one-game playoff for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, he did.

A short while earlier, fireworks and confetti had enshrouded El Tri as they lifted a shiny new trophy in front of the adoring supermajority of the more than 93,000 fans who had come to the Rose Bowl to pay witness. It had been a festive affair – for those partial to El Tri, anyway. A heaving, happy mass of people had spent the afternoon getting sodden with beverages, glistening from the hours spent out in the baking sun. And then they had watched an instant classic.

But for the USA and its fans, who were once again in the minority against Mexico, albeit much less of one than in the past, the party ended on a sour note. The Americans lost to Mexico for the first time in more than four years on a Paul Aguilar wonder strike in the 118th minute. After the Yanks had equalized once in the first half and once again in the first half of extra time. A heartbreaker.

"A loss is always difficult to swallow, especially when there's a lot at stake," Klinsmann said gravely. "It means that you have to work even harder than you ever did before in order to turn the results around and make things happen. So the Olympic team, they have to go the tough route. And we have to get our group together and rethink the next couple of months."

Ah, the Olympic team. Earlier in the day, the U.S. Under-23s had been outplayed and outsmarted by Honduras in a 2-0 loss in the semifinal of the Olympic qualifying tournament. That means in order to get to Brazil next summer, they'll have to beat Canada for third place and then, much more dauntingly, beat Colombia in a playoff. Their participation has been rendered a long shot.

Klinsmann has yet to deliver the things he promised to bring to the USMNT. (Getty Images)
Klinsmann has yet to deliver the things he promised to bring to the USMNT. (Getty Images)

It was, then, a dark and desperate day for U.S. Soccer. Within hours, places in both the Summer Games and the Confederations Cup were likely lost. Both will sting badly. The Olympics is the summit of a youth national team player's trajectory through the ranks before reaching the senior national team, and the best simulation of the major tournaments he'll face then.

As for the Confederations Cup, that isn't such a big deal to soccer's bigger countries. But to World Cup outsiders, as the Americans are, if they are even that, it's meaningful for the familiarity it provides with the host country a year out from the big tournament.

"You miss out on a big opportunity there of being in Russia in 2017," Klinsmann said. "That's definitely a big advantage for being in the World Cup, there's no doubt about it."

And so the mood surrounding the national team was gloomy as the heat finally broke after the game. Just as they had four years ago, the last time the Americans lost to Mexico, in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup in this very stadium, they shuffled to the team bus dejectedly.

"There's a lot of disappointment in our locker room because things didn't work out the way that we drew them up and thought we were," defender Matt Besler lamented.

"We didn't have really a hold of the game," striker Jozy Altidore said quietly. "We defended for long stretches. We have to do better overall."

Better overall. Yes. There is a great deal that needs to be better. There has been for some time now. The performances need to be better. The players need to be better. The results need to be better. The style needs to be better – or at least as advertised. The head coach needs to be better. Especially the latter, since he is responsible for all four of the former.

The signs that the program is making progress – How often have you heard those last five words in recent years?¬¬ – are troublingly scarce in any of those criteria. But Klinsmann doesn't feel he owes his mushrooming body of critics any kind of explanation.

"I don't need to say anything to them," he stated bluntly. "Everybody can express his opinion. And not everybody likes you. That's totally fine. I'm not here to be liked. I'm trying to do a good job. I do my best, to my capabilities and leave the judgment out there for you guys [the press] or people who want to express themselves."

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If the situation is uncertain and the bigger national team picture remains cloudy – or perhaps apocalyptic – Klinsmann retains several luxuries. For one, he had received the public guarantee from his only boss – U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati – that his job was safe no matter the outcome of this game. Secondly, it appears that his colossal contract, which has many millions of dollars left on it before it runs out in 2018, makes him all-but-unfireable for a financially prudent federation like the American one. Thirdly, there are no obvious candidates to replace him. And, finally, the start of World Cup qualifying is a mere month away.

"Obviously, we're going to go into World Cup qualifying already in November and we have to kind of sit together and discuss things – who we're counting on, how we want to build towards the next couple of games," Klinsmann said. "And there's not much time in between."

U.S. Soccer seems perpetually suspended between urgency and bottomless patience. That's Klinsmann's saving grace. Because while he's expected to win in the short term, his appointment was also a kind of long game. And that second mandate always seems to cover for the first, no matter how dire it all looks out there on the field. He's also the technical director, entrusted with the future. And the future is next, not now. We'd like to win now, very much so, but later on is more important. So if he loses now, that's OK because he's also got what's next.

Klinsmann plays to that singular dichotomy with his talent for torturing context to suit his agenda.

"We didn't win this game tonight because they scored the last goal two minutes before the end," he said Saturday. "Obviously, it was a bummer to see the Olympic team not win today as well. You can have your own impression where you look back the last four years what we did, what we went through. And there are positive moments. 2012: great year. 2013: great year. 2014: we get out of the group of death [at the World Cup] and now we have a tough one this summer. And that's part of it."

Actually, Jurgen, let's unpack that. In 2012, the U.S. won just one of its first three World Cup qualifiers, even struggling to beat Antigua and Barbuda. Getting through the third round of the CONCACAF preliminaries was a struggle. In 2013, he had an open rebellion on his hands when a slew of his players complained about him anonymously to the Sporting News and the team won just one of its first five games of the year. (Then, admittedly, it cruised to World Cup qualification and the off-year Gold Cup title.) In 2014, the U.S. did indeed survive one of the World Cup's groups of death – in spite of being badly outplayed in two of three games – before getting bounced by Belgium and then letting its form disintegrate the rest of the year.

After the game, goalkeeper Brad Guzan suggested it isn't much use to ruminate on bygone games for too long. "You can't look back and change the past," he said. "You can't dwell on results that haven't gone your way. You have to find a way to move forward."

This is true. Provided that the future promises to be better than the past. And that there's a clear path forward.

At the moment, it doesn't and there isn't. Klinsmann, the supposed visionary who was going to bring about evolution or a revolution or both, in exchange for much money and even more freedom, has provided neither.

And so American soccer looks solemn.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.