SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The defense was a shambles. The midfield had little presence. The attack, such as it was, just spun and sputtered.
How bad was it? It is difficult to know where to start.
There was no fluidity from the United States national team here on Tuesday night against Costa Rica. No flow, no rhythm, no concentrated push, either early or late. There was no sturdiness or stoutness or resilience in a game that felt critical. There was no creativity.
Mostly, there were a lot of mistakes. And moments of confusion. And missed passes. There were also, understandably, a lot of goals, though all of them were for Costa Rica, as the Ticos — pounded by the United States earlier this year during the Copa América — shredded the Americans, 4-0, in a World Cup qualifying result that could reasonably be labeled the single worst performance during Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.
Never before has the United States lost the first two games of the six-team final qualifying round known as the hexagonal, but after a 2-1 defeat to Mexico last Friday in Ohio, the Americans will have to wait four months to play again — knowing all the while that, with zero points, they are tied for last place.
Klinsmann’s status will be the obvious talking point for the foreseeable future, and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who said before the Mexico game that he expected Klinsmann to finish this qualifying cycle, declined to offer a similar statement of support in the aftermath of Tuesday’s nightmare.
Gulati said he will review the performance of Klinsmann, and the program as a whole, in the coming days. He was careful to say he does not want to make a snap decision at an emotional time, but also conceded that it was difficult to gloss over the ugly results of the past two games.
“Do facts matter? The answer is yes,” Gulati said. “Obviously, it’s not a good start to the hex.”
Gulati added, however, that he believes it is important to be pragmatic. Despite these poor results, qualification for Russia in 2018 is hardly lost. The top three teams after the home-and-away round robin is completed will advance to the World Cup, and the fourth-place team will compete in a playoff with a team from Asia. As just one illustration of how forgiving this format is, consider that Mexico finished fourth in the hexagonal for the 2014 World Cup after recording just 11 points in 10 games (two wins, five ties, three losses), but won the playoff to qualify anyway.
That reality, Gulati said, cannot be ignored. But when asked if it gives Klinsmann an endless amount of rope, Gulati shook his head and said, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
For his part, Klinsmann said he believed that he was still the right person to lead the United States forward while acknowledging that Tuesday was “a very, very bitter moment for us.”
Rarely shy about pointing out the inadequacies of his team, Klinsmann was more humble after this match, seemingly accepting some measure of responsibility for the inexplicable lack of fire from the Americans.
“It’s definitely the defeat that hurts the most in my five years,” he said.
Coaching aside, it was also impossible to overlook the general rottenness of the on-field performances. Jermaine Jones struggled to complete passes all night. Omar Gonzalez was slow to close down. Timmy Chandler seemed to be often lost up the field. Michael Bradley was overrun.
John Brooks, the young defender, had the ugliest evening as he gave the ball away constantly and was directly involved in giving the Ticos two of their four goals. Johan Venegas scored the opener just before halftime when Brooks — who apologized to the team after the Mexico game for losing his mark on the game-winning goal — was missing again, letting Venegas slip in front for a header. Stunned, the United States never recovered as Costa Rica blew he game open in the second half.
Christian Bolanos scored the second goal, and the substitute Joel Campbell added a pair as well — one of which came when Brooks blundered the ball away near his own goal and Campbell pounced, powered into the area and coolly finished past Brad Guzan.
“In moments like these, it does no good to point fingers,” said Bradley, the team’s captain, on his way to the team bus. “We just weren’t good enough.”
The depth of the Americans’ inadequacy, however, is what must be determined. Klinsmann has frequently rankled players, coaches, executives and fans with his lineup tinkering and lack of tactical cohesion, and his critics will point to his ill-fated attempt at a new formation early in the Mexico game, as well as his players’ lack of resolve here, as evidence that a change should be considered.
Klinsmann’s defenders would point to the success at the World Cup in Brazil (when the United States advanced out of a difficult group and nearly beat Belgium), as well as this summer’s run to the semifinals of the Copa América. It is also worth noting that Gulati pursued Klinsmann for years and is paying him millions of dollars to be the head coach and U.S. Soccer technical director.
The conversation will figure to continue for some time. If Gulati did want to make a switch, one option could be the former national team coach Bruce Arena, who currently does not have a contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy (but has said he expects to return there). Gulati said he had not had any discussions with Arena about the national team in recent weeks.
Ultimately, though, a change seems like the less probable path and Klinsmann remains the most likely person to be coaching the Americans when they face Honduras at home in March. For him, the long layoff is brutal in two ways: First, it offers Gulati plenty of time to make a move if he so chooses, while also meaning that Klinsmann — if he continues on — will have to live with the sting of this past week for quite some time.
“It’s about taking it, swallowing it, taking responsibility — which I do — and finding a way to get that corrected,” Klinsmann said. “Now, unfortunately we have to wait a couple of months for that moment.”
Sitting on the dais, he let out a sigh. “It is going to be a long couple of months,” he said.