A year and half ago, Jurgen Klinsmann was unequivocal. The objective for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was for his United States men's national team to reach the semifinals, matching the Yanks' best-ever performance from the 1930 World Cup, when just 13 countries participated, absent some world powers.
"This is our goal going towards Russia, not to stop at the round of 16, maybe not to stop at the quarterfinal," the German head coach said. "To say clearly, listen, we have four years to prepare this cycle. Our goal is going into a semifinal in a World Cup."
Read that statement now, with the new World Cup qualifying cycle in full swing, and you're more likely to stifle a chuckle than to think that it's even remotely plausible. After Friday's debacle in Guatemala, where the U.S. lost 2-0 to put its campaign to even reach Russia in some peril, any notions of the Americans breaking into the top four of the world presently seem fanciful and altogether farfetched.
What follows is not some hair-trigger reaction. Nor is it an undercooked take from a single game, or even a few games. It's the manifestation of almost five years of questions gone unanswered and stated ambitions left unmet.
It's come time to ask what it will take for Klinsmann to be fired.
And it's come time to acknowledge that if the U.S. loses to Guatemala again on Tuesday, in its Columbus, Ohio stronghold, that is probably what it should take for Klinsmann to be fired.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, the guardian of the sport's long-term health, says he remains committed to the manager he spent years pursuing and then handed a contract that dwarfed any of his predecessors'. Gulati implicitly staked his own legacy to Klinsmann's, and when your boss's reputation is on the line, there isn't a whole lot that will get you fired.
But if the U.S. loses again on Tuesday and faces a situation where it must win its final two games – at Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and against Trinidad and Tobago at home – and require help from others in the group just to advance, that should surely set off some emergency protocol. The Americans currently sit outside of the two places in Group C that will advance the holders to the fifth and final round – the hexagonal.
Certainly, you could point to the fact that in the last qualifying cycle the U.S. began this stage with a 1-1-1 record as well and qualified comfortably. But that just borrows from past mediocrity to justify more mediocrity.
There just isn't anything redeeming Klinsmann to justify the risk of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986. In almost half a decade in charge, his much-hyped appointment – remember all the talk about him taking the team "to the next level"? – has brought only regression. Bob Bradley left behind a team that was often unexciting and seemed to have grown a tad stale, but it was tactically sound and could be relied on to deliver a baseline performance.
Now, the senior U.S. team is arguably in a worse state than it has been in almost a decade. And at the 2006 World Cup, where the Americans finished last in their group, at least there was a foundation for the future, a core that would show well in South Africa four years later. There isn't even that now.
The Klinsmann bubble is bursting. The novelty has worn off. All the promise was hollow and the doctrine void. An intellectually honest assessment of what he has accomplished turns up an off-year Gold Cup triumph in 2013 and a round-of-16 finish at the 2014 World Cup, where the U.S. survived the deathly group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
But Klinsmann didn't get the U.S. out of that Group of Death. Luck did. The Americans were utterly dominated in three of their four games. They were outshot by an average of 11.5 times. They scored 1.15 goals per 90 minutes and conceded 1.38. They ranked 19th out of 32 teams in expected goals and 29th in expected goals against, according to StatHunting.com. Yet somehow they reached the last 16. The results flattered the performances. And it should probably be noted that Ghana imploded amid infighting and Portugal sleepwalked through the tournament.
Yes, Klinsmann did well in another job, laying the groundwork for a future World Cup victory with Germany from 2004 to 2006. But plainly, his accomplishments with Die Mannschaft – with the sizable help from right-hand man Jogi Loew – aren't relevant here. He has already been U.S. head coach almost two-and-a-half times as long as he was Germany's and the results are hardly the same.
The list of things Klinsmann has not accomplished runs far longer. The improved playing style is nowhere to be seen. The U.S. is capable of competing with the bigger soccer countries only when there is nothing at stake in friendlies. The promised integration with the youth national teams has taken place but yielded little, as they too are mostly in a sorry state. The promised confidence to go head-to-head with the global powers hasn't materialized. The high pressure and passing game were quickly abandoned. There exists no evidence that even Klinsmann himself knows what his best lineup is. Even the vow of improved fitness withered.
Meanwhile, there's been a steadfast erosion of the U.S.'s unity, battling identity and defensive organization. Klinsmann's atavistic tactics and insistence on playing half his team out of position, as if to make some point about his soccer smarts, have not helped things any.
And there is no credible indication that, given more time, Klinsmann will do better. That some long-game play is beginning to take root.
If Klinsmann, who styled himself a reformer, has left a legacy at all, it's one of chaos for its own sake and a systematic alienation of the fan base – as underscored by the vast swaths of empty seats at recent home games. His studied new-age vibe isn't intriguing anymore. His fixation on innovation produced a team suspended somewhere between the present and the future, but incapable of winning the important games in either.
Yet he has had at his disposal more money, resources, power and freedom than anyone in the job before him. Maybe even more talent, although there's little sense in comparing generations. But for all this, he has delivered no more than words – mostly substantively inert, train-of-thought ramblings that promise to arrive at a point but never get there.
What's worse, he seems to have come untethered from reality. To hear Klinsmann speak, things are more or less going according to some plan he drew up. He is a lovely and magnetic man – truly a very pleasant person – but it's becoming increasingly hard to take his utterances on his work seriously.
To be fair, he has achieved some significant things on a developmental level in his dual role as technical director that may yield dividends when future national teams take the field. But that isn't part of his remit as senior team head coach. And so we circle back once again to the idea that Klinsmann would make a better full-time technical director than he has ever been a coach.
If, come Tuesday, World Cup participation is in genuine danger – to say nothing of the potential humiliation at this summer's stacked Copa America Centenario, the biggest stateside soccer event in 22 years – it's time to move on. If Klinsmann can't, maybe somebody else will turn things around. Somebody who can scrape out a place in the hexagonal round of qualifying and avoid three straight losses in June.
A pragmatist, who knows the players. Maybe Bradley's predecessor, Bruce Arena, can be summoned to this emergency call. Or the steady Dominic Kinnear. Maybe elder statesman Sigi Schmid. Call the successor's position what you want. Maybe even keep Klinsmann around as the big-picture guy.
It was a worthwhile experiment. A grand vision. But either the idea was wrong or the man was. But since they are essentially one and the same, the moment will have come to try something else.
To try someone else.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.