For the third time in as many Gold Cup appearances, the United States men's national soccer team is headed to the final.
Before a packed house at Texas' Cowboys Stadium, the United States handily defeated Honduras 3-1 Wednesday night. Forward Eddie Johnson started the comfortable victory off with a goal in the 11th minute and the resurgent Landon Donovan capped the score with two more of his own, as the United States' three goals bested the two Honduras had given up in their previous four matches combined.
It was the type of dominant effort that had become par for the course in Gold Cup play. The United States have outscored their opponents 19-4 through five matches, winning each contest handily and extending their record win streak to 10 games.
With Panama shocking Mexico for the second time in this tournament in the nightcap at Cowboys Stadium—thus ending El Tri's run for a Gold Cup three-peat—the United States looked like a heavy favorite for Sunday's finale. Bovada has the USMNT installed as a one-goal favorite for the championship and a -400 favorite to win the whole thing, which will be held at Soldier field.
Just one problem—the United States may have to capture their first Gold Cup in six years without manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
The U.S. boss was dismissed late in Wednesday night's match, after showing up referee Walter Quesada on a questionable call in the 88th minute. Klinsmann, known for his at-times animated behavior, stood out on the pitch arguing that the Hondurans were purposefully going after his players with hard fouls. A two-man tackle on team captain DaMarcus Beasley drew the strongest reaction, as it looked on the field to be borderline deserving of a red card.
Fed up with the "let 'em play" attitude of the refs, Klinsmann went a bit overboard in his protesting and was booted off the field.
The aftermath of that shocking decision was at first an exercise in hilarity. Because of the strange rules of CONCACAF, the governing body of the Gold Cup, no one was quite sure whether Klinsmann would be suspended for Sunday's final or not. A usual punishment for a player sent off the pitch is banishment from that match and the subsequent contest.
As such, we had tweets like this from Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, a man who knows a thing or 70 about international football rules:
Only that wasn't the case. Somewhere in that swell CONCACAF rulebook that I'll never get around to reading, it states that managerial dismissals take on different precedents. Only CONCACAF's own press chief officer Jurgen Mainka, Wahl's source for the info, didn't even know that. Instead of garnering an automatic suspension, Klinsmann's actions will go under a judiciary body.
Wahl came through with the correction, and an understandably pointed CONCACAF comment while he was at it:
OK, that was fun. Now just imagine it all happening in realtime, and you've got hellish misinformation spreading like wildfire. The judiciary committee will reportedly render a decision Friday (per Wahl), leaving the USMNT in limbo until then.
For his part, Klinsmann went right to apology mode after the match, per Andrew Wiebe of MLSSoccer.com:
It was just a reaction out of frustration because fouls had added up throughout the last half an hour…I just kind of overboiled it. Obviously, you shouldn’t then throw the ball or hit it on the ground. I apologize for that reaction, but it was not meant against the referee, against nobody. It was just frustration because you feel the health of your player [is in jeopardy] in that moment. I apologize for that.
None of that will do any good now. Klinsmann put his team in jeopardy by going overboard when it wasn't needed—even if the decision to boot him was equally over the top.
Wait, sorry. Getting too hot in here. Let's be clear. Klinsmann's dismissal doesn't say anything about the type of man he is. Nor does it have any implications on his ability to lead the USMNT into Brazil next summer. Nor will it even serve as the rah-rah motivator for his players, who just love it when their manager defends them.
“Rightly so, he sticks up for us. He sticks up for his players,” Beasley said. “I don’t have [a] complaint about that, but hopefully CONCACAF sees that it wasn’t too malicious and he can be on the sideline with us on Sunday.”
Klinsmann gets a slow-clap for that much. That said, criticism of his behavior is at least somewhat fair. Vehemently arguing a call in the 88th minute of a match your club was about to win is the soccer equivalent of getting two technicals in the last minute of an NBA playoff game in which your team was already up 10. All the United States had to do was dribble out the waning minutes and avoid getting spiked in the gullet by the out-of-control Hondurans.
If you want to blow up on the refereeing, there is a perfectly good presser for you to do it in afterward. CONCACAF may frown upon the use of the four-letter words Klinsmann was likely using on the pitch at that point, but no judiciary committee in its right mind would suspend a manager for a post-match vent session. (Cut to the "this is CONCACAF we're talking about here" response.)
Klinsmann took an unnecessary risk—one that puts the United States in danger of losing Sunday against Panama should he get suspended. Much of the strategy the United States are planning to use in the final will be in place by the time a suspension decision gets rendered. If the United States find a successful weak point in Panama and get on the board early, Klinsmann's minions can take care of holding a lead.
It's the opposite scenario in which the United States is put in jeopardy. Panama have been lead by a high goal-scoring outfit and have defeated El Tri twice in this Gold Cup—the first two times they have ever done so. The Panamanians head into Sunday's match with as much confidence as ever. Without Klinsmann in the manager's box making in-match adjustments and substitutions, the USMNT is in a distinct disadvantage if Panama gets a lead.
The United States are the best country in the Gold Cup. They've been dominant every step of the way, without even the slightest of hitches through five matches. Klinsmann has pushed for the resurgence of Donovan, made all the right managerial decisions and even unearthed a sleeper in Chris Wondolowski.
Now it'll be interesting to see if his temper cost the United States their chance at Gold Cup glory.
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