When it comes to international soccer for the United States men’s national team, there are major tournaments and then there are major-ish tournaments.
The Gold Cup, which begins Saturday and comes to St. Paul on Tuesday, is a major-ish tournament. It’s an every-other-year continental championship that functions partly as a championship and partly as a way for American ticket buyers to fund, via revenue distribution, the underfunded Caribbean and Central American nations that make up the bulk of CONCACAF.
Nevertheless, the results matter. For the U.S. and Mexico — the two likely winners of the tournament — the outcome is seen as a measuring stick for the progress of the national team as a whole. This is especially true with three summers still to go until the next men’s World Cup.
The past two times the U.S. team was in this situation, it led to a key decision about the team’s manager. One was fired, the other probably should have been.
In 2011, the U.S. team was still floating on the high of the 2010 World Cup when Landon Donovan scored a last-minute winner to help the Americans qualify for the knockout stage. Nevertheless, there was a certain feeling that coach Bob Bradley might have taken the USA as far as he could, and that his brand of pragmatic organization would never be enough to take the team further than group-stage success at the World Cup.
A loss to Panama in the Gold Cup group stage was the first tremor for Bradley. When the USA blew a 2-0 lead in the tournament finals and was overrun for an hour against Mexico, losing 4-2, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati decided he had seen enough. Bradley was fired. Gulati hired former Germany coach Jurgen Klinsmann to transform the United States into a ball-controlling, all-conquering American juggernaut.
Klinsmann took a different approach, but his blend of uneven man-management and an über-hands-off technical attitude turned out to be more confusing than transformative. The beginning of the end for him came four years after Bradley’s ouster, at the 2015 Gold Cup.
The U.S. lost in the semifinals to Jamaica, its first home loss to a Caribbean nation in 46 years, and the first time it failed to make the final in a decade. U.S. Soccer, keen to avoid the hair-trigger it had used when it fired Bradley, held off on dumping Klinsmann.
This didn’t work, either. Klinsmann was fired after losing two key World Cup qualifying games in 2016. Those defeats led directly to the United States’ failure to make the 2018 World Cup.
Gregg Berhalter, in his first year as national-team coach, surely will have more time than Bradley got, and perhaps more than Klinsmann. But the last week and a half hasn’t been good for him.
Berhalter’s men lost at home to Jamaica — another home Caribbean loss — and were overrun 3-0 against Venezuela.
Maybe U.S. Soccer is willing to stick with Berhalter no matter the results in this Gold Cup, avoiding the mistake it made with Bradley. But Klinsmann’s record also shows that failure now can be a harbinger for future failure as well.