Six defining USMNT moments from 2016
It was an eventful year for the U.S. men’s national team, from hosting the Copa America Centenario to the ups and downs of World Cup qualifying and some major shake-ups within the very power structure of the program.
It sets up what should be an intriguing 2017 that has major stakes: a berth in the 2018 World Cup.
Here is a look back at the top moments from the United States men’s national team’s 2016 campaign.
6. USA 4, Costa Rica 0 – June 7
Pressure was mounting on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The Americans opened the Copa America with a listless loss to Colombia. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati met with reporters prior to the game and seemed to apply pressure to his coach. A win was necessary to save Klinsmann’s job.
Then the Americans took care of business in Chicago. The U.S. men were dominant from start to finish against the Ticos, dismantling their CONCACAF rivalry en route to a dominant victory that would set them on a new course in the Copa America and save Klinsmann’s job. At least temporarily.
5. USA 4, Guatemala 0 – March 29
The Costa Rica win wasn’t the first time in 2016 that Klinsmann had survived a job scare. A World Cup qualifying loss in Guatemala had put the U.S. in a pressure-packed scenario on the return trip against Los Chapines. A loss would put qualification in a precarious position. The Americans responded in a big way against a team that beat them 2-0 just four days prior. Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Jozy Altidore all scored to keep the U.S. on the road to Russia.
4. USA 2, Ecuador 1 – June 16
The 4-0 win over Costa Rica helped turn the momentum for the Americans in the Copa America Centenario tournament. The doomsday attitude after the Colombia loss was transformed into a first-place finish in the group stage. That set up a quarterfinal match against Ecuador. It was a big opportunity for the U.S. to reach the semifinals of a major tournament on home soil, and it did not disappoint. Dempsey continued his strong tournament with a goal in the 22nd minute and Gyasi Zardes’ 65th-minute goal was enough to see the Americans through to the final four.
3. Argentina 4, USA 0 – June 21
This game could have been the crowning achievement for Klinsmann. Instead it brought the U.S. crashing back to reality.
The U.S. was underwhelming while being completely overwhelmed.
A good run in Copa America included quality wins over Costa Rica, Ecuador and Paraguay, but the semifinal match-up against Argentina was the chance to make a real impression. A win would have backed up any and all arguments that Klinsmann had helped the American program take a step forward. Against Messi & Co., however, the U.S. never stood a chance. It was a dismantling, both in the score and in every visible footballing aspect on the field. The U.S. was underwhelming while being completely overwhelmed. A semifinal appearance was a victory, but this thrashing made it feel like a smaller one.
2. Losing to Mexico and Costa Rica by a combined 6-1
The U.S. entered the final round of World Cup qualifying with an understanding that it faced two of its three toughest games in the first two match days. Still, at the home of Dos A Cero and on the road against the Ticos, the U.S. expected to earn at least two points. Four points was considered the goal. Not only did the U.S. end up with zero points from the two games, but the Americans left Costa Rica with an embarrassing 4-0 loss.
Klinsmann’s tinkering put the U.S. at a disadvantage at home against Mexico and a late goal stunned the Americans. Things got worse in Costa Rica. The U.S. lacked energy and fight and the Ticos dominated every aspect of the game as they delivered a 4-0 loss, among the worst in U.S. history. The defeat was the final straw and it led to the most important moment of the year for the U.S. men...
1. Firing Jurgen Klinsmann
For some, this move came too late. For others, it was simply a necessary move at the right time. The U.S. was undoubtedly struggling after two losses in World Cup qualifying. It was clear a new direction was needed. Still, the decision by Gulati to fire Klinsmann came across as surprising for many observers who believed the U.S. Soccer Federation president would never pull the trigger on a coach to whom he was so closely tied.
Klinsmann’s legacy is a complicated one. His time with the U.S. included plenty of ambition, but not much in the form of results. He escaped the Group of Death, but did so playing a defend-and-counter style that was one of the worst statistically for the U.S. He pushed players to challenge themselves, but also left Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster while including players who had never made a senior appearance.
No moment mattered more in the scope of the U.S. national team, the program and the expectations for growth over the next few years. Firing Klinsmann was followed by hiring former coach Bruce Arena, who has experience in leading the national team through qualification. That decision, too, ranks among the top moments of the year because it sets a course that could be dramatically different from what Klinsmann aimed to do with his senior squad. With 2017 just around the corner, the U.S. is headed down a different path.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.