Klinsmann can't escape personnel questions after U.S. loss to Jamaica
ATLANTA -- As Jurgen Klinsmann attempted to explain the U.S. national team's shocking 2-1 defeat to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals, the head coach seemed to be in disbelief at what had transpired. His side had, at times, played its best soccer of the tournament. The U.S. dominated possession and created even more chances on Wednesday night than it had in the 6-0 quarterfinal demolition of Cuba.
"We lost this game with two set pieces that we conceded, it's as simple as that," Klinsmann said. "Then we had enough chances to put three, four, five in there. They didn't do that, and that's why at the end of the day we lost it. Unfortunate, but it's reality. We have to swallow that pill."
It should be Klinsmann who has the greatest difficulty choking down Wednesday's result, one that propelled the Reggae Boyz into Sunday's final and sent the U.S. into the third-place match. He invested a great deal in winning the 2015 Gold Cup. He wanted the U.S. to secure a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup. To that end, he went with a largely veteran roster.
But there was one area in which the U.S. manager gambled with youth, and that was in the center of the team's defense. Whenever possible, Klinsmann persisted with Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks, at the expense of Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream. Matt Besler, who like Gonzalez was a mainstay during the 2014 World Cup, was left off the roster entirely.
Given the success that Klinsmann has had in the past gambling on younger players, especially at that aforementioned World Cup, one was inclined to give him a pass on his decision when it was made. But this was one occasion when the U.S. manager's roster compass was way off, and it was evident throughout the tournament. When paired together, neither Alvarado nor Brooks ever managed to put in a complete performance, and there was a growing sense that a good team would punish the mistakes that the Americans were making.
That scenario finally came to pass in Wednesday's semifinal against Jamaica. A simple long throw-in proved to be not so simple, with Darren Mattocks rising above both defenders to head home Jamaica's opener.
There were other mistakes on the night to be sure. On a night when Jamaica goalkeeper Ryan Thompson turned even the most innocuous shots into an adventure, the Americans' finishing touch largely eluded them, with Aron Johannsson missing multiple golden opportunities. A rare handball call on U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan as he attempted a long throw up field also proved crucial as it gifted the Reggae Boyz a free kick near the top of the box that was rifled home by Giles Barnes in the 36th minute.
Replays showed the call to be correct, but when asked if the call was normally a case of a play in which some leeway was given, Guzan said, "Normally? I don't think I've ever seen that called, especially if it's a matter of inches and the linesman is three yards behind me. I think that's an impressive call from his point of view. Listen, the referee has given it, you have to try and defend it, and [Barnes] has taken a good free kick."
Michael Bradley, who scored the U.S. goal and did what he could to inspire the team's comeback in the second half, added, "You don't see [that handball] very often. It wouldn't be a call that I would be making if I were a referee, but I'm not a referee."
Yet it was the opening goal that set Jamaica on its course, gave them confidence when the U.S. was piling up the pressure, and ultimately sent the visitors on their way to a memorable victory.
How memorable? The last time the U.S. had lost to a Caribbean nation at home was 1969 against Haiti. It was also just the second time Jamaica had ever beaten the U.S., leaving the hosts to watch the Gold Cup final on television for the first time since 2003. Yet Klinsmann insisted he would make the same decision with regard to his center-backs again, and that it wasn't a case of him looking toward the future.
"Right now they are already on a level that they deserved to play these games, they deserved to play the Gold Cup," Klinsmann said about Brooks and Alvarado. "They have their hands raised, these couple of guys as center-backs, and some outside backs that we want to see the competition going on, and they will just get better over the next couple of years. That's not a problem at all."
When set against the fact Klinsmann's predecessor, Bob Bradley, was fired after losing the 2011 Gold Cup final to Mexico, questions are bound to be raised as to whether Klinsmann should be held to the same standard. To be clear, Klinsmann isn't going to be fired -- U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has too much invested in Klinsmann to go that route -- nor should he be. To put this match in its proper context, it doesn't rise to disaster level. That place is reserved for results that endanger qualification for the World Cup.
"This one game doesn't make us a bad team," Guzan said. "It doesn't set us 20 steps backward. You learn from it and you move on."
True, but Klinsmann's roster decisions in this tournament do call into question his judgment and the extent to which it is a meritocracy. It took a knee injury to Timothy Chandler, whose performances were even shakier than those of Brooks and Alvarado, for Klinsmann to finally make a change at right-back. What Gonzalez and Besler have done to fall down the pecking order is a mystery.
The end result is that Klinsmann has sacrificed not only the present but possibly portions of the future as well. The berth in the Confederations Cup -- a tournament that would aid the Americans' World Cup preparations considerably -- will now require a playoff to be held in October against the winner of Sunday's final. World Cup qualifying is just around the corner as well. For now, the U.S. has no choice but to analyze Wednesday's result and take things from there.
"At the moment it's just letting this sink in, digesting everything a little bit," Bradley said. "We have no choice but to move ourselves forward, to continue to improve and to make strides in every way. We'll deal with the third-place game in the best possible way; two big friendlies in September to get us ready for what we know will be a big game in October."
By then, perhaps Klinsmann's roster compass will have been recalibrated.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.