The results of soccer friendlies can be terribly misleading and cause irrational reaction. The U.S. national team’s first-ever victory at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City last summer was ecstatically received here and rebooted a regional rivalry that had been swinging in Mexico’s favor. Ultimately, though, it was non-binding and both sides turned their attention back to more pressing matters.
The same rules apply for unwelcomed outcomes, such as the Americans’ 4-2 loss to Belgium on Wednesday night in Cleveland. U.S. supporters took to online message boards to bemoan the display, which included three conceded goals in 15 minutes of the second half.
Asked to list three positive aspects of the performance, Coach Juergen Klinsmann offered nervous laughter and said, “Three? You challenge me with three?”
In any context, there is no disgrace in losing to Belgium, which fielded a lineup of supreme speed, skill and power and is marching toward its first World Cup appearance since 2002 with a nearly unblemished record in group play.
The fact it came in a friendly softened the blow, but with three World Cup qualifiers on the horizon, these tune-ups are tied to the broader mission.
Klinsmann’s crew has another chance to get it right Sunday afternoon against Germany at RFK Stadium. Reinforcements are arriving after extended club commitments in Europe: midfielder Michael Bradley from Italian Cup runner-up Roma and midfielder Daniel Williams and defender Fabian Johnson from Hoffenheim, which this week avoided Bundesliga relegation by defeating Kaiserslautern last week.
Defender Edgar Castillo and midfielder Joe Corona were with Mexican club Tijuana on Thursday for a Copa Libertadores game in Brazil and will report here Saturday. D.C. United’s Bill Hamid has also joined the group, replacing Chicago’s Sean Johnson as the No. 3 goalkeeper.
Although Germany was not able to call in players from Champions League winner Bayern Munich and Spanish titan Real Madrid, the Americans face another big test. The Germans opened their tour with a 4-2 victory over Ecuador in Boca Raton, Fla.
While the outcome is not critical, Klinsmann hopes to benefit from facing high-caliber opponents before delving back into regional competition for a 2014 World Cup berth.
“When you lose them it’s not such a big pleasure,” he said, “but I’d rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador 100 times because that’s where you learn.”
Klinsmann needs to strike a balance between learning and damaging morale. The fear is that another heavy defeat could dent confidence and raise questions heading into the June 7 qualifier at Jamaica. Through three of 10 qualifiers, the Americans (1-1-1) are in third place among six CONCACAF teams vying for three automatic berths in Brazil.
“We want to get things right so that when we get down to Kingston, we are firing and we win that game,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Ultimately, we have to make sure our morale is good all the way through. Our mental state is important because the three [qualifiers] on the back end are going to make or break us.”
After playing Jamaica (0-1-2), the Americans will face first-place Panama (1-0-2) on June 11 in Seattle and Honduras (1-1-1) on June 18 in Sandy, Utah.
Regardless of the Belgium and Germany results, Klinsmann is not worried about the team’s frame of mind.
“There is no player that is going to have sleepless nights over the next couple days,” he said. “We want to make sure there is a better flow, better understanding, better communication for when the games come that we badly need to win.”
U.S. notes: Midfielder Brek Shea, who missed the start of training camp and the Belgium game with a calf injury, will not join the team in Washington, a team spokesman said. The extended absence all but rules him out of playing in the first two qualifiers. . . . Tickets for Sunday’s match are close to selling out, organizers said. With temporary seats added behind the goals, capacity is around 46,000.