Tonight in Pasadena, California, the Rose Bowl plays host to CONCACAF's two principal rivals. The USA and Mexico will do battle with a spot in 2017's Confederations Cup in Russia on the line. For the USA however, this is about more than just a spot in that tournament.
Following a poor run of form after surviving the Group of Death and losing in the Round of 16 last summer in Brazil, many American soccer fans are questioning whether or not Jurgen Klinsmann is the right man to lead this budding soccer nation. Some have called for the German manager's head already and a defeat here will only strengthen that argument.
But is that much at stake? Does Klinsmann really have to fear for his job in the not unlikely event that he doesn't win this one?
If there is any time for US Soccer to give Klinsmann the axe before the next World Cup cycle truly gets going, it's now. Waiting until later in the cycle could foil plans for success in 2018. Klinsmann set the lofty goal of reaching the semi-finals avye many fans have bought in. This is not likely to happen under new leadership. If they do not want Klinsmann around in three years, why not give his replacement as much time as possible to build a winner?
But is tonight the defining moment of Klinsmann's career in America? I think not. I think this nation rides him through the next World Cup before it thinks about cutting ties. Klinsmann has preached patience right from the start off his tenure. A country like the USA, with a very small soccer following, needs another cycle of consistency to move forward.
That's not saying Klinsmann isn't off the hot seat. He really needs to focus his game plans if he wants to get done big winds and stick around. Tonight needs to be the beginning of that turn around. If the team losses tonight and shows no signs of improvement in World Cup qualifying and friendlies over the next year, than he very well could be out as manager.
My main criticism of Klinsmann's management of the National Team is his inability to decide which direction he's taking. Is he building for the future or riding the experienced players to sort term success? His lineups in this past summer's Gold Cup were a mix of both philosophies and it ended in miserable failure and the need for tonight's match. His mix of kids with old men was his indecisive way of trying to both win the tournament and allow the youth to play meaningful soccer. He needs to stick with one or the other going forward.
With so much on the line from a competitive standpoint tonight, he's going with the best players he can trot out there, regardless of prior experience.
I expect to see the USA line up in the classic 4-4-2 "Klinsmann Diamond" formation. Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore should be up front. Michael Bradley, who is starting to look much, much better than he did in Brazil, should start in the attacking midfield role. Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi would be my box to box midfielders and Kyle Beckerman would man the holding midfield spot.
The backline is always the question with this side. Losses in the Gold Cup can be directly attributed to put play on defense. The theme for this must win game is experience, so I go with Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler in the middle with old man DeMarcus Beasley and the kid Deandre Yedlin as the full backs.
There are plenty of options off the bench. Gyasi Zardes can provide some late speed in the flanks. Chris Womdolowski can be a late game poacher up front. Danny Williams can reinforce the midfield and keep Mexico from pushing too far forward. Defense is the only area where there are few reinforcements. Fabian Johnson could step in as a wide defender, but that's about it.
In the end, I still don't believe this squad full of holes can take down a more complete Mexico side. They are quicker and more organized and come with a history of success in Pasadena. I think Mexico takes this one 2-1 after an early pair of goals followed by a US comeback that falls short. Klinsmann sticks around as manager, for now, but expect next summer to be his time of reckoning if this downward slide continues.