Klinsmann's USMNT tenure reaches tipping point against Paraguay

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If you believe in tipping points, if you accept the idea that the outcome of long-term processes hinges on just a few moments, you could argue convincingly that the United States men's national team has arrived at just such a point.

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The trajectory of our band of soccer strivers and seekers, after all, can swing wildly after Saturday's Copa America Centenario reckoning against Paraguay. Beat the fourth-placed finishers at last year's regular Copa America on Saturday and the U.S. not only advances to the quarterfinals but also posts a winning record in a difficult group – after a 2-0 loss to Colombia last Friday and an emphatic 4-0 win against Costa Rica on Tuesday.

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Tie the winless Paraguayans in Philadelphia, and the Americans likely still move on – provided that equally winless Costa Rica doesn't beat Colombia by six goals or more later on in the night to make up the goal difference. The record books are a bit dodgy, but as best as we can make out, Costa Rica hasn't beaten anybody by six goals since September 2008 – and that was against feckless Suriname, rather than the third-ranked team in the world.

[ COPA AMERICA | Predictions | Scores/Schedule | Standings | Teams ]

A tie, in other words, should still accomplish the U.S.'s first objective of surviving the group stage. Then, per uber-optimist head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the goal is to reach the semifinals, even though a date with once-mighty-but-now-mediocre Brazil is likely.

Klinsmann will have survived a tough draw in two major tournaments in a row – the 2014 World Cup being the first – and, given the marked improvement of the soccer on display down on the field, there will at last be a sense of momentum, five years into his ballyhooed but rocky tenure. Warranted or not, Klinsmann will have consolidated his mandate. And his mission to lift American soccer to a higher plane, whether that's within his capabilities or not, will live through the 2018 World Cup in Russia – barring some kind of qualifying calamity.

Option three, of course, is losing. Such a scenario would see Paraguay advancing and the Americans knocked out. Suddenly, the narrative would swing the other way. It would be a second straight tournament in which the U.S. flamed out, after the embarrassing semifinal loss to Jamaica at the 2015 Gold Cup. The latter would no longer be a hiccup on the road to progress, but a harbinger for failure duplicated at the Copa.

And in that case, Klinsmann would be very much in trouble. It was previously believed that his hold on the job was absolute. But after his failure to win last October's CONCACAF Cup, a contrived playoff for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup which was lost to Mexico in extra time in the wake of the Gold Cup disaster, patience might be wearing thin. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said at the time that the expectation was to win that playoff. He said on Tuesday, just hours before the must-win Costa Rica game, that he expected wins this summer as well.

"Results are what matter – everyone understands that," Gulati told several reporters then. "The results over the last 18 months, overall, have not been what we would've hoped for – especially in the official competitions. … We haven't been up to where we'd like to be. We'll look at everything at the end of this competition. … My expectation is certainly to … get through [the group stage]. A heartbreaking third place doesn't do the trick."

To drive home the point, Gulati added that "in the business we're in, and specifically in the business coaches are in, you don't get to see through too many long-term goals if you don't hit the short-term goals."

The veteran administrator measures his words carefully, but he couldn't have been clearer. Klinsmann's job was – and is – very much on the line. Which also implies that a single game against Paraguay represents a seminal moment of sorts for the national team program. If Klinsmann weathers it well, he'll get to continue his reforms and further remake what the federation is and does.

If he doesn't, we could soon have a new national team head coach who, with less than two years remaining before the next World Cup, wouldn't have the time to concern himself with anything so grand as the long term and would surely just focus on building a decent team. It stands to reason that Gulati would pick more of a coach than an ideas man for his next manager, the antithesis of Klinsmann, who has yet to convince in the tasks of his primary job – coaching. As technical director, he has made progress. But that hasn't yet manifested itself on the field.

Although he didn't address his job security, Klinsmann understands the stakes.

"This is it. This is already a knockout game on Saturday. This is it," Klinsmann told reporters on Thursday. "It's a one-off, and this is our goal, to go through that on Saturday and play the next one-off and learn how to win these one-off games – to mature in our own way towards a World Cup where we can go further."

"Our big dream is to get into a final four of a World Cup, rather sooner than later," he added. "Saturday night is a game where you expect the guys to go out there and really give everything have. If they do that, if they bought into this whole process, it's going to be a very exciting game."

This is indeed the litmus test of "this whole process." Which is to say his process. If the Americans fail, their objective of reaching the final four of this tournament – let alone the final four in Russia, which is another stated Klinsmann objective – will look fanciful.

And another man may wind up setting the agenda from there on out.

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

 

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