Thursday’s soccer roundup: U.S. men have work to do
Atlanta — Jurgen Klinsmann strolled into the room in the basement of the Georgia Dome, not looking overly concerned about the biggest upset loss in U.S. men’s soccer history.
Sure, the coach was disappointed that his team won’t be heading to the Gold Cup final Sunday, having been upended by an island nation of 2.9 million people that’s known mostly for Usain Bolt and some of the world’s greatest Olympic sprinters.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s reality,” Klinsmann said. “We have to swallow that pill.”
More than that, a 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals Wednesday was a striking reminder that Klinsmann, approaching four full years as the U.S. coach, has yet to push the national team from the fringe of international contention to a full-fledged powerhouse.
He did produce a Gold Cup title in 2013 and an inspired run to the knockout round at last year’s World Cup in Brazil. But in this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, the stunning setback to the Reggae Boyz showed Klinsmann’s tenure is still a work in progress.
The Americans will face Panama in the third-place game Saturday in suburban Philadelphia, which the coach views as the first step in turning things around.
“It’s about finishing off in style in front of our fans,” Klinsmann said. “We need to go in with the right attitude.”
After the Gold Cup, the focus turns to Olympic qualifying the first two weeks of October and a CONCACAF playoff game Oct. 9 for a chance to play in the 2017 Confederations Cup. The Americans will face the champion of Sunday’s final between Mexico and Jamaica, with the playoff winner gaining a coveted spot in the most important warm-up for the next World Cup in Russia.
As the 2013 Gold Cup winner, the U.S. could have avoided a playoff with a second straight title. Jamaica scuttled those plans, skillfully executing two set pieces about five minutes apart in the first half and holding off a furious rally in the second.
The U.S. had a dominating 10-3 edge in shots on goal and largely controlled the flow of play, but all it could manage was a goal early in the second half by Michael Bradley.
“The luck was not with us. And maybe we weren’t clinical enough to put it in there,” Klinsmann said. “Effort wise, rhythm wise, passing combinations — everything was there. That was a lot of good stuff we saw. But the goals weren’t there.”
Klinsmann stepped in as the U.S. coach in July 2011, shortly after Bob Bradley was fired on the heels of the U.S. squandering a two-goal lead in a 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
There have been plenty of promising signs during the Klinsmann era, most recently a pair of wins five days apart in friendly matches at the Netherlands and Germany in early June.
The Gold Cup was a step backward. During group play, the Americans hardly impressed in wins over Honduras and Haiti and a draw with Panama — none of their opponents ranked higher than 62nd in the world. A 6-0 blowout over 104th-ranked Cuba, a team ravaged by defections during the tournament, didn’t prove much of anything. Then, against No. 76 Jamaica, the Americans lost at home to a Caribbean nation for the first time since 1969.
“Maybe we were missing a little bit luck, a little bit sharpness, a little bit of whatever you want to call it,” said Bradley, the team’s captain and son of the former coach.
Klinsmann was impressed by the play of 24-year-old Aron Johannsson. But the front line was hurt by the loss of striker Jozy Altidore, who was dropped from the squad after group play because he hadn’t fully recovered from a hamstring injury.
At the back, goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a silly mistake on a routine throw, giving the Jamaicans a free kick that they converted into their second goal. Guzan got the nod because the country’s top keeper, 36-year-old Tim Howard, took a sabbatical from the national team after the 2014 World Cup.
Howard is ready to return, targeting a friendly match against Peru on Sept. 4.
With an eye farther down the road, Klinsmann is looking for improvement out of the junior teams. The Americans failed to qualify for the 2012 London Games, a significant setback for the under-23 program. Of those that started the game that eliminated the U.S. team, only two played a role in the Gold Cup.
Klinsmann wants to get some younger players into the mix, a group that includes 20-year-old Jordan Morris and 19-year-old Rubio Rubin and Emerson Hyndman.
“Some of the kids in there, I would love to have at the senior level,” Klinsmann said. “We’ll figure that out.”
After the CONCACAF playoff and Olympic qualifying, the U.S. turns its attention to World Cup qualifying, which begins in November.
“We’ve got to keep building, keep progressing, keep working hard,” Klinsmann said. “Then it starts all over again.”
Women’s soccer is on the rise
Nowhere could the World Cup bump in women’s soccer be more apparent than in Portland, where more than 21,000 fans watched a National Women’s Soccer League rivalry match between the Thorns and the Seattle Reign.
It was the second-largest stand-alone crowd ever to watch a professional women’s league game in the United States. And while soccer-crazy Portland usually attracts big crowds for the hometown Thorns, the rest of the league is also seeing a surge in interest.
The NWSL is loving the attention.
“The last few weeks have been really, really nice for all of us,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said. “But there’s more hard work. It continues to be a business we work very hard at every day. So it’s not going to be a panacea. You have to work hard at growth.”
The U.S. women’s national team, whose players are allocated throughout the NWSL, defeated Japan, 5-2, earlier this month in the title match at the World Cup, which was played across six Canadian cities. It was the team’s third World Cup title, most of any nation.
The players have since returned to their club teams and to crowds eager to see the American victors.
The NWSL is in its third season and is in a crucial period because no other women’s league in the United States has been able to last very long. Both forerunners, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) and Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) each folded within the three-year mark.
The Panamanian Football Federation has demanded the removal of CONCACAF’s referee selection panel after describing the officiating in the 2-1 Gold Cup semifinal loss to Mexico as “insulting and embarrassing.”
The FPF, in a statement on Thursday, also accused the match officials of favoring Mexico “in a vulgar and shameless way.”
In the bad-tempered semi in Atlanta on Wednesday, Panama forward Luis Tejada was red-carded in the 24th minute, but the team led 1-0 until stoppage time when Roman Torres was penalized for a handball. Mexico converted that penalty, and another in extra time to win 2-1.