Jurgen Klinsmann rarely lets negative sentiment enter his vocabulary and this week is no different, even with the U.S. men’s national team faced with one of the most nerve-racking matchups of his reign as head coach.
However, for all the positive mentality Klinsmann is trying to spread through his team in the aftermath of a dismal 2-0 defeat in Guatemala on Friday, the reality remains that the U.S. is potentially 90 minutes away from an unthinkable World Cup disaster.
Another loss to the Guatemalans when the teams meet Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), this time at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, and the side would be virtually certain to miss out on qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“The situation (is) very clear,” Klinsmann told reporters. “We need to win.”
Just a little bit. The U.S. has never failed to reach the World Cup since 1990, a run of seven straight tournaments that has helped give the game in this country a welcome boost every four years.
And while the U.S. will be a strong favorite to emerge victorious on home soil, the current flirtation with failure does not sit well with followers of the national team.
Even a tie in Columbus would leave the team in a precarious position. The U.S. is in third place in Group 3 with four points, behind Trinidad and Tobago (seven) and Guatemala (six). The top two finishers progress to the final qualification phase, beginning later in the year.
“We always said World Cup qualifying is a long road, a tricky road, a difficult road,” Klinsmann said. “If you lose it makes it more difficult. Nothing is given to you for free, you have to work hard and get your points. We have to take responsibility for it but we are confident we will get there.”
There have been similar troubles in the past. Back in 2000, the U.S. had to win its final game in this round on the road in Barbados to avoid elimination. It did so, 4-0, but suffered a nervous hour before finally getting on the scoresheet.
In the previous cycle to this one, ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann’s side needed to avoid defeat at home to Guatemala in this round of qualifying and fell behind before bouncing back.
One of the quirks of CONCACAF qualifying is that for the bigger teams, the earlier and, in theory, easier round of the process, provides the greater danger. The four-team groups allow little room for error, whereas the longer format in the six-team, 10-match Hexagonal round, from which three teams are guaranteed to progress directly to the World Cup, gives greater flexibility.
Fans of the national team were understandably disturbed by the Guatemala defeat, not only by its ramifications but also the way in which it came about.
Two goals were conceded in the opening 15 minutes, a deficit the U.S. could not overturn, despite a series of chances in the second half.
In the American camp, however, there was a strong sense that Guatemala had benefited from a strong dose of good luck.
“They had some good fortune,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I can imagine on Tuesday night they won’t be so lucky.
“They were straight forward. They flopped around, they won fouls. We knew they would so that was no surprise to us.”