Juergen Klinsmann expected to have his U.S. national soccer team playing for a Gold Cup title in Philadelphia this weekend.
Instead, the Americans will be playing for little more than pride when they meet Panama in the tournament's third-place game Saturday (Fox Sports 2, 1 p.m. PDT).
The abrupt change in plans was caused by the semifinal loss to Jamaica on Wednesday, which stopped the Americans short of the Gold Cup championship game for the first time since 2003. But the upset may also serve as a much-needed wake-up call heading into a busy and important autumn for U.S. Soccer.
"There's no choice but to move ourselves forward," captain Michael Bradley said. "There's no other way to go," especially with Olympic qualifying, a Confederations Cup playoff game and the start of World Cup qualifying all looming on the horizon for the U.S.
That schedule alone should be reason enough to dismiss the ridiculous calls by some for Klinsmann's dismissal. The loss to Jamaica was the national team's first in 10 games, a streak that included wins over world champion Germany and the Netherlands, which finished third in last summer's World Cup.
But if Klinsmann feels a need to redeem himself, he will get several this fall.
As technical director for U.S. Soccer in addition to his duties as coach of the national team, he will have a big hand in preparations for the Olympic qualifying tournament. Then on Oct. 9, Klinsmann will coach the senior team against the winner of Sunday's Gold Cup final — either Mexico or Jamaica — in a one-game playoff for the right to represent CONCACAF in the 2017 Confederations Cup, an important World Cup tune-up.
A month after that, the U.S. will begin World Cup qualifying; where and against whom will be decided in a FIFA draw Saturday in St. Petersburg, Russia.
If the U.S. plays well in the fall, the loss to Jamaica will be looked at as nothing more than an insignificant stumble. But if the team continues to struggle, as it did throughout the Gold Cup, the Jamaica game will be seen as the first symptom of a much larger problem.
Either result, success or failure, won't be entirely of Klinsmann's making. Although his roster selections and game management are often questionable, the real challenge facing U.S. Soccer is the dramatic improvement of teams throughout CONCACAF, a region no longer dominated by the Americans and Mexico.
Last summer, three of CONCACAF's four World Cup teams made it to the knockout stage in Brazil with one, Costa Rica, reaching the quarterfinals. Only South America did as well.
Since Klinsmann took over as coach of the U.S. team four years ago, he has repeatedly warned anyone who would listen that CONCACAF is a difficult place to play. If Wednesday's loss gets his players' attention heading into World Cup qualifying against the same teams, then it might well have been worth it.
But first they have to refocus on a short-handed Panama, which enters Saturday's consolation game wounded and angry after losing its semifinal to Mexico in overtime on a series of questionable calls that led to two penalty-kick goals. On Saturday, Panama will be without five players because of injury or suspension: goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, who also plays for the Galaxy, will be serving the first of a two-game ban; midfielders Valentin Pimentel and Gabriel Gomez and forward Blas Perez are hurt; and forward Luis Tejada is out because of a red card.
The Mexico-Panama game also was interrupted by fans throwing debris on the field, with one delay halting play for 10 minutes. And when the embarrassing episode finally ended, the Panamanian team charged referee Mark Geiger, who had to be escorted off the field by security personnel.
The Panamanian players tried to put the whole thing behind them during Friday's final Gold Cup training session, shelving soccer for a game of kick ball.
The Americans, meanwhile, were taking things a bit more seriously.
"Finishing off in style, being third then and doing that with the right attitude and right approach — you owe that to fans and the tournament," Klinsmann said. "Swallowing that pill, it's not nice to swallow. But it is what it is, you can't change that anymore.
"Then we keep building, we keep progressing, we keep working hard in order to go toward World Cup qualifying by the end of the year and it starts all over again."
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