The U.S. men’s national team endured a disastrous end to last summer’s Gold Cup, losing to Jamaica and Panama on home soil in its final two games. The two losses were the team’s first knockout-round losses against a CONCACAF opponent besides Mexico since 1989. It was more than a setback; it was a giant step back — back to the days when the U.S. went 40 years without qualifying for a World Cup and American men’s soccer victories of any kind were few and far between.
Mexico’s seat-of-the-pants victory in the Gold Cup set up a one-off U.S.-Mexico playoff game Saturday night, a clash of the North American titans in what’s being called the “CONCACAF Cup.” The winner will enter the 2017 Confederations Cup and play valuable pre-World Cup matchups with big teams from around the world. The loser is staring at three more years with nothing but World Cup qualifiers to look forward to.
More than that, though, it’s referendum time for the United States — not just for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann but for an entire generation of American players. For the U.S., the game may determine which direction the team goes in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup.
Retired U.S. superstar Landon Donovan, who has a history of enmity with Klinsmann, suggested this week that it was a win-or-else game for the head coach. Despite increasing pressure from Donovan and others, though, USA Soccer has hitched its wagon so firmly to Klinsmann that a firing seems unlikely. It’s also virtually impossible that Klinsmann would quit on his own, given that he’s made a point of never taking the blame or responsibility for any misfortune that might befall the U.S. team.
If anything, a loss would give Klinsmann reason to continue tinkering with lineups and bringing in inexperienced youngsters. For this game, he’s called up mostly veterans, and most of the team is well-known and well-tested. Curious omissions still abound, most notably Los Angeles Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez, but for the most part it’s likely to be a very familiar team that takes the field. Should the Americans lose, though, Klinsmann might see it as time to make a clean break with a generation of players that never seemed to mesh with his style and return to his attempt to rebuild the team from the ground up.
Mexico, in coach-related disarray of its own, hasn’t won in six tries against the Americans, and since the turn of the century the United States has won 13 times in the rivalry to Mexico’s five. Whoever wins, they’ll feel they’ve returned to their rightful place as kings of CONCACAF. For the U.S. and Klinsmann, a win erases the Gold Cup nightmares. A loss, though, might be the beginning of big changes.
• The Bundesliga season is only eight games old, but we might as well fast-forward to the end of the year, because Bayern Munich appears certain to clinch a fourth consecutive championship. Bayern’s 5-1 win over Borussia Dortmund, a dominating victory over the only other German team that appeared remotely able to challenge the champions, means that Bayern has a seven-point lead after only eight games. At this point, we should probably talk less about whether Bayern can win another title and more about whether it can complete an undefeated season in the German league. Displaying the proper Evil Empire-style attitude, Bayern striker Thomas Muller was quoted this week as saying: “I play at FC Bayern. Our job is to win our games, not to keep the league competitive and please the neutrals. Should we lose on purpose to make them feel happy? Well, we won’t.” Dortmund, and the rest of the Bundesliga, might already be too far behind to catch up.
• Liverpool, which fired head coach Brendan Rodgers following last week’s draw with Everton, hired former Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp to replace him. Klopp, who left Dortmund in May to take a break from coaching, is known for his attacking style and goofy interviews, and for elevating Dortmund into Germany’s top two — and making it the only team to regularly compete with Bayern. In Liverpool, he takes over a team that’s spent plenty to match the multiple Bayern-like giants of England but doesn’t have the recent success to show for it.
• It’s looking likely that all three Minnesota products in MLS will be in this year’s edition of the playoffs. Prior Lake native Teal Bunbury has appeared in all but three games for the New England Revolution, which is one point away from clinching a playoff spot. The Montreal Impact, the club of Woodbury native Eric Miller and Henry Sibley High School standout Calum Mallace, is also on the verge of a playoff appearance — though a loss Saturday night in Colorado would put a big dent in the Impact’s chances. Mallace has been a regular feature, with 20 starts in midfield for the Impact this year, while Miller has nine appearances of his own.
Weekend watch guide
NASL: Fort Lauderdale at Minnesota, 7 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 45. The Loons are playing perhaps their best soccer of the year, with seven wins and three draws in their past 10 games — including a 5-2 victory over Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago. Minnesota is one win from clinching a playoff berth but has gained no ground on Ottawa in the fall-season standings, where the Fury still lead by five points. All United can do is keep winning and hope that Ottawa — with its four-game winning streak — will slip up at some point.
CONCACAF Cup: Mexico at United States, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports 1. Mexico has had a rough year; either “El Tri” scores in bunches but its defense collapses, or the defense keeps a clean sheet but the offense looks lost. Mexico will face a U.S. side that remains as unsettled as ever. Jurgen Klinsmann’s constant changes mean that nobody knows whether the U.S. side that won at Germany and at the Netherlands will show up, or whether the one that lost to Jamaica and got whacked 4-1 by Brazil will be there. Either way, this is perhaps the match of the year in international soccer.
Euro 2016 qualifying: Ireland at Poland, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, ESPN. Ireland beat powerhouse Germany 1-0 on Thursday to set up what effectively is a Group D playoff for the final automatic qualification spot. Poland will qualify with a win or a draw, making it the favorite, but Ireland’s euphoria over beating Germany might carry it through. That said, the Irish have to contend with Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, who scored 12 goals in four games for Bayern Munich entering the international break, and then scored twice against Scotland on Thursday to earn a draw for Poland. The loser of this one will go into the playoffs for third-place teams, the winner to Euro 2016.
NASL: Edmonton at New York, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN3. The NASL playoff race has split itself into two separate races. Edmonton, tied for fourth, is closer to last-place San Antonio than to third-place New York. The Cosmos still has a hope of clinching home-field advantage for the playoffs, while Edmonton is just trying to sneak its way into the four-team field. This week will be a critical one for the Eddies; they play three road games in seven days. By next Saturday, we will have a pretty good idea if Edmonton will make its first playoff appearance since 2011 or start the offseason early yet again.