Less than a week ago, all was well with the United States men's national team.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann's squad had a successful summer, reaching the third-place game of Copa America Centenario. The early fall saw youngsters like Christian Pulisic and Lynden Gooch emerge as solid parts of the present and future, while players such as Sacha Kljestan and Julian Green came in from the cold.
Tim Howard was in top form, with Geoff Cameron and John Brooks looking like a center-back pairing that could solidify the back line until the 2018 World Cup and beyond. The momentum, you'd have to say, was heading in the right direction.
Today, after losses to Mexico and Costa Rica to begin the final round of 2018 World Cup qualification, the narrative around the team is one of a squad in chaos, with a vocal segment of the media and supporters calling for Klinsmann to be removed. The pendulum, quickly and dramatically, swung back in the other direction.
It's all a bit reactionary, really. The ultimate goal is a ticket to Russia, and that's still achievable since CONCACAF is the easiest region in the world from which to quality.
The Americans sit at the bottom of the six-team group after two matches, but there are eight games to go, and Klinsmann's crew will be favored in the majority of them. Five wins and a draw over the next eight games—not a difficult task when you consider Friday's defeat was the only home qualifier the U.S. has lost in 15 years—will almost certainly see the Americans earn one of the three automatic slots.
Even fourth place is a likely ticket to Russia since the U.S. would be tipped to advance in a playoff with the fifth-place finisher in the Asian confederation.
Losing to Mexico at home and Costa Rica on the road isn't great, obviously, but it's hardly a death sentence. After all, El Tri reached the 2014 World Cup by winning just two of 10 Hexagonal round games and finishing with 11 points.
The qualification freak-out is, therefore, unwarranted. The Americans lost to CONCACAF's two best teams in what are the second- and third-most difficult fixtures on their Hex schedule. (Only Mexico in the Azteca Stadium is harder). But that isn't to say there are reasons for concern about the greater state of the program.
In the past, Klinsmann's tenure has been marked by periods of struggle, followed by a rebound. In March 2013, the squad appeared on the brink of disaster following a loss the previous month in Honduras, and a Sporting News article detailing a divided locker room.
The team responded with one of its best wins of the year, a gutsy 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in a Colorado blizzard. Earlier this year, the Americans lost 2-0 in Guatemala but then went out four days later and posted a resounding 4-0 win to right the listing qualification ship.
On Tuesday night in San Jose, the Stars and Stripes had a chance to make amends for the crushing last-minute defeat against archrival Mexico in the previously impenetrable fortress of Columbus Ohio's Mapfre Stadium.
Instead, they fell flat. They were the inferior team from the beginning; outplayed and outworked. Few, if any, of the starting XI played well, and the substitutions—which came too late—didn't fare any better.
It was a match that began poorly and trended worse, a broken team that gave up two goals because they were outhustled, then conceded two more because they no longer wanted to be on the field. The performance was the opposite of resilient.
So, there's that, which isn't good.
Luckily, the Americans don't play another World Cup qualifier until March, when they host Honduras before heading to Panama. Those are two winnable fixtures, and there's plenty of reason to think the U.S. can figure out what ails them over the next four months.
Squint just a little and an optimist vision of the roster presents itself. Brooks, 23, lost Rafa Marquez on El Tri's winning goal and showed his youth against Costa Rica, posting one of the single worst performances by a Stars and Stripes center back in recent memory, but he's improved dramatically over the past year. When paired with Cameron—missing from the last two qualifiers due to an injury—Brooks looks more comfortable, and the two did well during the Copa America.
On the other end of the formation, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are developing a chemistry in attack. A bright moment in Friday's match came when the Toronto FC forward delivered a perfect pass to Wood, who used his strength and skill to finish past goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera. If both can stay healthy, they'll be a formidable duo up top.
For all the criticism that Michael Bradley receives, he remains a solid midfielder—the type of smart, industrious player who makes his teammates a little bit better (at least when he's deployed in a role that suits his skills).
And then there's Pulisic. The Borussia Dortmund prodigy turned 18 less than a month ago, and it's already possible to make a case that he's the best player on the team. He's certainly replaced Fabian Johnson—mostly absent against Mexico and Costa Rica—as the squad's most dynamic influence.
The game bends toward the teenager, his 5'8" frame shifting the gravity of the proceedings in a way that hasn't happened for an American player since perhaps Landon Donovan in his prime or maybe never. Pulisic's rapid ascendancy is nothing short of remarkable, and he continues to improve. He could start, and star, for the U.S. until the 2030 World Cup.
The building blocks exist. But after the recent results, it's fair to say the foundation is wobbling. Many of the tactical adjustments Klinsmann made backfired. He trotted out a 3-5-2 or 3-4-4 against Mexico in an effort to free up Pulisic's attacking creativity. The teenager, who's normally a winger, struggled in the middle of the field and the three-man back line fell into disarray.
Klinsmann's choice of Timmy Chandler over DeAndre Yedlin didn't work, nor did the experiment with Matt Besler at left back. Bradley and Jermaine Jones still can't figure out how to play together in a way that maximizes their abilities.
Not a single substitution over the 180 minutes made much of an impact. In the waning stages of an already-lost match on Tuesday, the coach sent on Graham Zusi, rather than handing promising 18-year-old defender Cameron Carter-Vickers a game that would have tied him to the USA. As things stand, the Tottenham Hotspur teenager could still switch allegiance to England.
Klinsmann may or may not have lost the locker room, and he may or may not lose his job. In a vacuum, I would send him packing—especially if former U.S. manager Bruce Arena, currently out of contract after a successful stint with the Los Angeles Galaxy, is available. But the team doesn't exist in a vacuum, and United States Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati has his reasons for whatever choice he makes.
What is apparent is that the tenure has not gone as planned. One telling stat that bounced around the internet Wednesday morning was the USMNT's ELO rating, a ranking used to compare the quality of teams. It's improved from 1,714 when Klinsmann took over to 1,718 this month, a poor showing from a coach getting paid $3 million a year.
US Soccer ELO rating about to sink to some new recent lows--> pic.twitter.com/TDZ94Fj3Jt— Roger Pielke Jr. (@RogerPielkeJr) November 16, 2016
Some things are out of his control. Only four players who were born between 1990 and 1992—Chandler, Wood, Aron Johannsson, and Steve Birnbaum—made the most recent roster. That's meager production from the 23-26 age bracket, a group that's entering its prime and should be contributing to a greater degree.
The recent call-ups from those years, rapidly becoming a lost generation in American soccer, don't add much: Bill Hamid, Ventura Alvarado, Perry Kitchen, Darlington Nagbe, Alfredo Morales, Mix Diskerud, Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, Gyasi Zardes, Fafa Picault, and Ethan Finlay. That's not on the national team coach, who isn't in charge of developing individual talent.
As a big-picture manager, Klinsmann hasn't been terrible. He's identified skilled players elsewhere, recruiting dual nationals and giving players like Jordan Morris and Yedlin chances to shine.
But he struggles in-game, and his team follows suit. They bombed out of the Gold Cup before the final. They fell in the CONCACAF Cup. They eked through the Copa America, then got beat badly by Argentina. They were shaken in the loss to Mexico, then crushed by Costa Rica.
Too often, they look confused and disoriented. The sky is darkest before dawn, sure. But how can you tell when it stops getting dark?