COSTA MESA, Calif. — Not only does former United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann think that the U.S. national team would be headed to the World Cup had he not been fired in 2016 — the German legend contends that FIFA’s No. 24-ranked squad could have made it all the way to the semifinals this summer in Russia.
Klinsmann had remained mostly quiet since being replaced by Bruce Arena after the U.S. squad dropped the first two games of the final stage of CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament.
But that silence ended recently, as he sat down for interviews with a couple outlets, including more recently, Yahoo Sports.
The former Germany striker and manager, who took the U.S. job in 2011, told Sports Illustrated that the Americans have a chance at making the final four of global soccer’s quardrennial showpiece event in 2022, when the competition will be hosted by Qatar.
But speaking to Yahoo earlier this week, Klinsmann said that had the Yanks made the 32-nation field this summer, reaching the last four in July was a “realistic” possibility.
“I realistically saw a group growing into the World Cup 2018 that could go into a semifinal,” Klinsmann said.
On the face of it, such optimism seems absurd. The USA has made a World Cup semifinals just once, at the inaugural event way back in 1930. Since then, the best the U.S. has managed was a quarterfinal berth under Arena in 2002. With Klinsmann on the sideline four years ago, the U.S. survived a murderers’ row of group stage opponents – including eventual champions Germany – to advance to the knockout stage, but were outclassed in a 2-1, extra time loss by Belgium in the Round of 16 that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.
The team has regressed significantly since then. The Americans finished fourth at the 2015 Gold Cup under Klinsmann, losing the third-place game to a Panama squad that outshot them by a wide margin.
Klinsmann did get the team to the last four of the Copa America Centenario on home soil the following year, beating South American foes Ecuador and Paraguay along the way, but qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica cost him his job before 2016 closed out. Arena could only post a record of three wins, two losses and three draws in the eight remaining qualifiers, including a loss in Trinidad and Tobago on the final match day, and the U.S. ended up fifth in its six-team group —missing out on even a playoff for a trip to Russia.
But to hear Klinsmann tell it, there is little correlation between performance in qualifying compared to the main event.
“The World Cup has nothing to do with the four years prior to that. It’s a completely new chapter,” said Klinsmann, who as a player helped West Germany win the title 28 years ago.
“Whenever I played in a World Cup or European Championship, it gave me so much energy. I don’t know why. I could have had a s*** season before that tournament, and suddenly that tournament brought me to life. Whatever happened the last couple of months before didn’t matter.
“We almost didn’t qualify for Italy in 1990 with Germany,” he added. “We had to win our last game against Wales, and I still remember that Mark Hughes missed a 100-percent chance two minutes before the end of the game. He had a free header and he put it over the bar. If he puts that in, we’re not going to Italy. And then we won the World Cup.”
Of course, the U.S. lags far behind Germany on the biggest stage. But Klinsmann said the Copa America experience would have benefited the Yanks at this World Cup had they managed to eke out a spot into the tournament.
“It was so valuable to play Copa America because it gave the players a sense of where they were, that they can beat South American opponents, good teams like Paraguay, Ecuador,” he said. “I think it was really huge for that group of players.”
Just not enough to help get them to Russia 2018.
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• McIntyre: Klinsmann, Arena tell their stories of USMNT qualifying failure
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