Dos A Cero es terminado.
The United States men's national team lost 2-1 vs. Mexico in its opening match of the Hexagonal round on Friday night. The mythology of four consecutive 2-0 scorelines at Columbus, Ohio's MAPFRE Stadium came to an abrubt end just over 20 minutes into the game. A better second half performance couldn't make up for a poor first 45 minutes, as the U.S. would go on to lose its first home qualifier since 2001. Jürgen Klinsmann's side now finds itself in far more urgent need of a result in Costa Rica, and just four short days to figure it out. Here's what we learned:
Don't experiment against Mexico!
The lineup decisions for this game should have been fairly straight-forward: choose a center back to replace the injured Geoff Cameron to pair with John Brooks. With several reasonable choices, including the in-form Omar Gonzalez, the experienced Matt Besler, or the emerging Steve Birnbaum, this should have been plug-and-play. Instead, Klinsmann cleared the board and changed everything.
In the most important qualifying match of the cycle, Klinsmann outsmarted himself, once again. Rather than stick with the 4-4-2 that had worked so well in recent months, using the same personnel, instead the United States came out in a 3-5-2 (though Klinsmann would later insist it was a 3-4-3.) In came three new defenders, that though experienced, had not played major roles for some time: Gonzalez, Matt Besler, and Timothy Chandler. Jermaine Jones, who only two weeks ago returned from a long injury lay off, was deposited directly into the XI. Relegated to the bench: Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya and DeAndre Yedlin. Say goodbye to creativity and pace, say hello to emphasis on physicality.
The result was predictable. The Americans were exposed badly in the first 25 minutes. Spacing was poor, communication was poor, roles were poorly defined. In the latter stages of the first half when it was clear the 3-5-2 was a disaster, Klinsmann shifted into a 4-4-2. Things improved, and the second half was much stronger from the Americans. But the damage was done early. Losing at home vs. Mexico was never part of the equation that solves the Hex. Suddenly Klinsmann has new problems to solve.
Jermaine Jones no longer fits in the XI
How can you not love Jermaine Jones? He plays on the edge, he's got a big personality, and he loves to put on the United States jersey. You want guys who leave everything on the field. That's who Jermaine Jones is. One thing you can be certain of with Jones is that you'll get commitment.
Even though we love all those qualities in Jones, his days as a starting member of the USMNT need to end. Sure, age and fitness are factors. But more importantly, putting him in the lineup does nothing but keep more skilled attacking players on the bench. His presence changes the way the entire team plays, and right now, that's not a good thing.
We had a good thing going with Sacha Kljestan in the #10 role playing in front of a deep-sitting Michael Bradley. Christian Pulisic was finding his way on the wing, where's he's excelled for both club and country. Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore were developing a partnership and figuring out how to best play off each other. Roles were defined, and the Americans were starting to look like a team that could impose itself on opposing defenses.
Instead, Klinsmann insisted on forcing Jones into the mix, and blew the whole thing up. A free-roaming Jones changes Bradley's role, resulting in the captain playing both further up the field and creating spacing issues. Sacha Kljestan's brilliant creative play was pushed to the bench. The young Pulisic was dropped in the middle in, according to Klinsmann, a "free role". Timothy Chandler is a fine attacking fullback, but when he's your primary outlet for wide play, it's a problem.
All of these things happened solely to accommodate the return Jermaine Jones. It was a disruptive step backwards and it cost the USMNT three points. Jones can still contribute to this team, but it should only be as a role player. How long will it take for Jürgen to figure this out?
Klinsmann MUST get a result in Costa Rica
Melodramatic? I'm not so sure. If the United States were to come away from this week with zero points in two games, it's not a death blow to qualification, but it'd be a massive problem.
With a home loss in the books, the Americans will need to take the full points in each remaining home game. Away results in CONCACAF are difficult. We know this. A loss in Costa Rica, and the U.S. would potentially find itself already 6 points behind both the Ticos and El Tri, in 5th place at best. That's hard to come back from. A loss Tuesday would assure, if nothing else, that the entire Hexagonal round will be a grind. You could almost certainly forget about winning the Hex, and the U.S. would be reduced to jockeying with Panama for third place. It's not a doomsday scenario, but it's one that starts to get precarious.
The temptation will be to manage a result and be satisfied with a draw. In the big picture, a draw would probably be fine. Which probably means Klinsmann will play it safe. Or at least his own vision of what "safe" is: Jermaine Jones somewhere in the middle as an enforcer, with better players left on the bench.
We shouldn't be surprised when the lineup is revealed on Tuesday. But it better work. Opening the Hex with two straight losses is NOT acceptable, and puts 2018 qualification in tremendous doubt. The next pair of qualifiers is four long months away; there's time to figure it out. But if Klinsmann can't figure out a path to a result in Costa Rica, then the path forward in March is a task that must be left for the next United States manager.