Tonight the U.S. Men’s National Team plays a crucial Copa America group stage match against Costa Rica. Probably they will win; probably they will also win against Paraguay on Saturday; probably they will lose to Brazil in the knockout round after that. If this proves to be the case, there’ll be an effort to spin the tournament as a positive, a sign that the team is moving in the right direction again after 2015’s disastrous Gold Cup collapse and dispiriting loss to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff. This is some bullshit.
The pick for this roll was set back in February, when Soccer Twitter melted down upon seeing the USMNT drawn into Group A with Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Colombia, to whom they suffered a 2-0 defeat in the tournament opener. It’s true that this draw represented something close to a worst-case scenario for the U.S., but only with respect to their plum status as a seeded team alongside Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico; any combination of teams from Pots 2, 3 and 4 was still going to present a pretty easy path out of the group, and a tougher-than-expected draw didn’t change that. Neither Colombia nor Costa Rica are as good as their runs in the 2014 World Cup made them look; Paraguay may not quite be a minnow in the way that Haiti and Venezuela are, but they’re a young team ranked by Elo as the eighth-best of the ten CONMEBOL sides and shouldn’t be a real threat to a veteran American squad.
That fans and media alike fretted for a single moment over the USMNT’s chances in this group tells you all you need to know about the state of the team in 2016. Jurgen Klinsmann took the job in 2011 selling a vision—one that tracked with the more-or-less steadily upward arc the USMNT has been on for decades now. That vision didn’t include crashing out in the Gold Cup semifinal, or the scared, defensive approach employed against Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, or competitive losses to Guatemala as Russia 2018 draws closer, or two consecutive failures by the U-23 squad to qualify for the Olympics.
In 2016, the USMNT should feel confident about challenging to win a group like this one, not hopeful about narrowly escaping from it. It should barely be breaking a sweat in the Hex, much less the fourth round of WCQs. Mexico may well be the better side, but the American player pool isn’t nearly as bad as strained Klinsmann apologism tries to claim it is, and certainly not bad enough to justify the ugly, desperate display in Pasadena last October. This team, right now, should be out to prove a point on home turf against quite possibly disinterested South American giants like Brazil and Argentina, to make a deep surprise run like it did seven long years ago at the 2009 Confederations Cup, when Ricardo Goddamn Clark was a key member of the side.
For the team not to be in a position to do all or most of these things this year is a failure on Klinsmann’s part, a trajectory well off the mark from the one he pledged to have the program on by this point in his tenure. That needs to be communicated loudly and clearly—a task made somewhat more difficult by the dour fatalism to which the American soccer fan has long been predisposed, and the hyper-reactive, tunnel-visioned nature of sports media takery. We’re not getting a change in management before the 2018 World Cup (barring a shock failure to even qualify), but in the meantime we shouldn’t fall into the trap of setting our expectations so low that Klinsmann, ever the snake oil salesman, is able to claim momentum and moral victories from what should by now be routine accomplishments—or, as would be the case with a poor result against Costa Rica tonight or Paraguay on Saturday, continue to spin repeated disasters as minor, isolated setbacks. Klinsmann’s going to keep trying to con us into believing the USMNT hasn’t badly regressed under his leadership no matter what. We shouldn’t make it any easier for him.