The general consensus about U.S. men's national soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann is that he has some successes as the technical director of U.S. Soccer but has come up failing as a coach. As we discussed last week, many establishment figures in American soccer don't like how Klinsmann has challenged the way the U.S. has generally handled its soccer business, from the MLS all the way down to youth academies, which has led to widespread antipathy toward him. And the thing they use against him is his record as coach, specifically:
• The initial struggles in World Cup 2014 qualifying, famously culminating in a Sporting News story featuring several USMNT players anonymously denigrating Klinsmann's methods.
• The embarrassing fourth place finish in the Gold Cup last year.
• The loss to Mexico in the play-in game for the 2017 Confederations Cup.
• The ugly 2-0 loss to Guatemala in March that, briefly, put the U.S. in potential danger of reaching the hexagonal round of 2018 qualifying.
And this has been the rap on Klinsmann. He has all these ideas about how U.S. Soccer should run its business, but when it comes to the men's national team itself, as a tactician and motivator, he's lacking.
"The result, in this country that's all that matters to a lot of people," Klinsmann said last week, which got him mocked up and down. This is America, pal. Of course we only care about results.
So, fine. If everybody wants to just care about results, how about this one: The USMNT is one win away from one of the greatest achievements in the history of the whole organization. Under Klinsmann, they're this close to reaching heights they've never reached before. You want results? How about making U.S. Soccer history?
With the USMNT's yeoman's effort Saturday night in a 1-0 win over Paraguay, the United States won its group at the Copa America, finishing ahead of Colombia, the third-ranked team in the world. It sent the U.S. into the quarterfinals, where they will play Ecuador (the 13th-ranked team in the world) on Thursday night, 9:30 p.m. ET, in front of a raucous crowd in Seattle, one of the best soccer cities in the country. If they win that game, they will be in the semifinals of one of the world's most prestigious soccer tournaments, where they might just face Argentina and Lionel Messi, the best soccer player in the world.
Sure, the U.S. got some breaks. It needed Costa Rica to pull off a mammoth upset against Colombia -- a team that played most of its reserves and immediately suffered the consequences -- to help them win the group. But that's how these tournaments work. Strange things happen. The trick is taking advantage of them. Klinsmann and his team have done that, relying on grizzled vets like Clint Dempsey and emerging stars like John Brooks, who played one of the best games any American has ever played on this stage in the win over Paraguay. The U.S. is one win away from the semifinals, and they didn't get there by accident.
But more to the point: The U.S. never does this. Klinsmann is always being measured against some presumed standard of excellence that the USMNT has never reached. His critics act like he's falling short of expectations. But why should the U.S. have expectations about anything? U.S. Soccer takes itself far more seriously than the rest of the world takes it. Klinsmann has been working on that. And this is progress.
How much progress? What have been the United States' biggest global successes on the soccer stage throughout its history?
Well, let's look. We basically have to focus on three tournaments: The World Cup, the Confederations Cup and the Copa America. (The Gold Cup is only CONCACAF, which means it's almost always -- this year excepted, darnit -- just Mexico and the United States fighting it out. It's difficult to learn much from that.) There are no bigger tournaments than those three that the United States even has the opportunity to measure itself with.
Let's look first at the Copa America. Because it's a South American tournament, the United States usually doesn't get to participate. It has played in four.
• In 1993, they were wiped out and finished last in their group.
• In 1995, they upset Argentina, won their group, beat Mexico on penalties in the quarterfinals and lost to Brazil 1-0 in the semis. They ended up finishing fourth.
• In 2007, they lost all three games and finished last in their group.
And now they are in the quarterfinals.
The U.S. has made the Confederations Cup four times. In 1992, when it was called the King Fahd Cup, there were only four teams, and the U.S. finished third. In 1999, they finished third out of eight teams. In 2003, they finished last in their group. And in 2009, their best-ever finish, they almost won the darned thing, beating Spain in the semifinals and losing to Brazil 3-2 in the championship (after taking a 2-0 lead no less). This is probably the most impressive tournament showing in USMNT history.
As for the World Cup, well, American Soccer Now's Noah Davis, in a piece for this site two years ago, ranked the U.S. team's 10 World Cup appearances. The best ever was the 2002 team, which reached the quarterfinals. The second-best? Klinsmann's 2014 team. Third was the 1994 team that barely made it out of the group stage. Fourth was the 2010 team that lost to Ghana.
So, what are the greatest U.S. soccer tournament finishes in the history of the sport?
• 1995 Copa America
• 2002 World Cup
• 2009 Confederations Cup
• 2014 World Cup (coached by Klinsmann)
If the U.S. can win Thursday night, the 2016 Copa America, also coached by Klinsmann, will join this list. That would be two of the best finishes ever by a USMNT, coached by the guy we're constantly being told is a lousy tactician and a foolish interloper.
Look, I know you're still mad about Landon Donovan (wrongly). I know his formations sometimes make you scratch your head. But you want results? Get past Ecuador -- no easy feat -- then you've got yourself some results. Forget needing to make a change. This is in fact the best we've ever had it.