DENVER — On the eve of a critical World Cup qualifier, the U.S. Soccer Federation scheduled a pep rally at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday night. Players were to interact with fans, Coach Juergen Klinsmann was to speak with typically unbridled zest and live music would flood the historic downtown Denver venue.
The party was planned weeks in advance, but given recent events, the timing was opportune.
If anyone needed his spirits raised, it was Klinsmann and his players.
●Thanks to last month’s loss at Honduras in the final-round opener, Friday’s encounter with Costa Rica at DSG Park in Commerce City has become, according to Klinsmann, a “must win.”
Statistically, it’s hardly that. Each of the six regional finalists will play 10 matches through the fall, and half the field is guaranteed a ticket to Brazil in 2014. But with a hellish visit to Mexico’s Azteca Stadium on Tuesday and a trip to Jamaica on the three-game June itinerary, the Americans can’t afford to drop points at home.
●Seven regulars, most notably goalkeeper Tim Howard, are unavailable for these two games because of injuries. Four of them were scratched just as Klinsmann was about to announce the list Monday. Two players, including captain Carlos Bocanegra, weren’t called in because they haven’t been playing regularly for their respective European clubs.
Midfielder Brek Shea arrived at camp with lingering foot problems. Forward Clint Dempsey returned from a calf injury days ago and isn’t fully fit.
And then there’s Landon Donovan, the program’s career scoring leader who hasn’t kicked a ball competitively since winning MLS Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy more than three months ago — an extended mental-health break after a dozen years of nonstop soccer. He isn’t here and won’t resume training until the end of the month.
●Then Tuesday, in a scathing story published by the Sporting News, several players anonymously questioned Klinsmann’s methods, tactics and roster decisions. They described a team lacking direction and preparation, one that, according to a source in the story, is “overtrained and undercoached.”
The story caused a firestorm in the U.S. soccer community. Some people criticized the players who spoke out and others questioned the USSF’s decision to hire the unconventional German coach in the first place.
Venting in the media — and doing so anonymously — drew the ire of midfielder Michael Bradley, son of Bob Bradley, Klinsmann’s predecessor.
The younger Bradley said such comments by players were “shameful” and “embarrassing.”
Others, such as Dempsey and Herculez Gomez, played down the stir.
They said it wouldn’t distract from the task at hand and wasn’t much different from media reports they endure playing in foreign leagues. Nonetheless, the players discussed the matter to clear the air, and based on their comments Wednesday, the matter seems to have galvanized the group.
The furor comes at a delicate time for Klinsmann, who, since his appointment 19 months ago, has failed to deliver on his promise to showcase an inventive, entertaining team. He did orchestrate away victories against Italy and Mexico last year but both were non-binding friendlies.
In consequential matches, the Americans have sputtered. They played just a few good halves during the six-game semifinal round of qualifying against inferior opponents and needed to come from behind in the finale at home to secure passage.
This year’s campaign got off to a dreary start: The Americans seemed lost for much of a sun-scorched afternoon in Honduras and conceded a late goal in a 2-1 defeat.
Klinsmann also had a bumpy ride as coach of the German national team ahead of the 2006 World Cup on home soil, enduring relentless criticism. By the time the tournament rolled around, though, Germany was clicking, eventually advancing to the semifinals with an attractive brand of soccer.
The difference now, aside from the gulf in talent between Germany and the United States, is Klinsmann has to qualify for the World Cup; as the host country in 2006, Germany was an automatic participant, allowing him to tinker and experiment.
Among the complaints about him here is a lack of consistency in player selections: He has not fielded the same lineup in 23 matches. Although injuries and suspensions left him understaffed for several games, Klinsmann has made puzzling decisions — overloading central midfield at the expense of the wings; not providing enough support for the striker; and playing inexperienced players in key games.
Much is at stake in this qualifying campaign for both the USSF and its president, Sunil Gulati, a Columbia University professor by day, who had wooed Klinsmann for years. Klinsmann’s base salary is $2.5 million — about four times more than Bradley’s base salary.
The investment in Klinsmann runs deep. Aside from the millions it would collect by qualifying for the World Cup, the USSF would retain bargaining power in negotiations with Nike and SUM, which owns national team marketing rights. Those deals are worth a combined $21 million annually and expire in December 2014.
If things turn sour, the USSF might have to consider replacing Klinsmann in order to salvage the World Cup effort, and as an extension, its financial agreements.
Hiring a high-profile coach — at a high price — brought high expectations. The U.S. team was expected not only to continue qualifying for the World Cup — it has participating every four years since 1990 — but raise its quality as well.
If the next five days don’t go well, however, improving the overall quality might have to wait. Just getting through qualifying will have to do.