The first two games of the CONCACAF Hexagonal - the final round of 2018 World Cup Qualifying games for our region - have come and gone for the US Men's National Team. They did not go well for the USA. Jurgen Klinsmann's side lost to both Mexico and Costa Rica: the first time the USMNT has lost two qualifiers in a row since the team got back into the habit of actually qualifying for World Cups.
For fans of a team that has played at the last seven World Cups, the poor start to qualifying for the 2018 competition is an unwelcome throwback to the barren 40-year interlude between USMNT's appearance at the 1950 tournament and its re-appearance on soccer's biggest stage in 1990.
Worse than the reminder of past failure, however, was the vivid sight of the USA playing badly. Over two games in November, we saw a lot of lifeless play from USMNT and tons of ball watching as both El Tri and Los Ticos found ways to break down the defense and punish the boys all over the field in both Columbus, Ohio and San Jose, Costa Rica.
If that was bad for fans, it must have been worse for a member of the New York Red Bulls who had earned a recall to the USMNT for its opening games of the Hex.
Thanks to his form in MLS, he had been handed opportunities in semi-final round of World Cup qualifying games down against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.
Sacha Kljestan scored two goals and twice assisted Christian Pulisic, showing near-immediate chemistry with the young player Jurgen Klinsmann now openly describes as the center of his tactical planning. And when he wasn't clicking with Pulisic, Kljestan was making RBNY tick, becoming just the second player in MLS history to record 20 assists in a single season in the league.
So why did Jurgen Klinsmann mostly ignore the abilities of Kljestan for the USMNT's November internationals?
After two games in the Hex, the USA has zero points and a -5 goal difference. The team is dead last in the standings, facing an urgent need for points when qualifying starts up again in March. And Sacha Kljestan's contribution to the fiasco was a 19-minute cameo at the end of the second match, by which point USMNT had been outscored 4-1 in the preceding 161 minutes of competitive international soccer.
Yes, Kljestan came into the November camp having suffered a broken nose during RBNY's exit from the MLS playoffs - so it was understandable that he wasn't in Klinsi's starting lineup in Columbus for the match against Mexico. And yes, when former MetroStars goalkeeper Tim Howard was forced out of the game in the first half, Klinsmann had to burn a sub on back-up 'keeper Brad Guzan, and adjust his substitution ideas accordingly. Also, yes - it made sense to bring DeAndre Yedlin in for Timmy Chandler in the 74th minute of the match: a like-for-like swap that brought a little extra speed out wide and so offered USMNT fresh impetus on both sides of the ball without disrupting a revised game plan that had got the USA back into the game.
All of that made sense. But then Klinsi choked. With the game tied, 1-1, it was for USMNT to force the tempo and push for the win. Instead, he spent his last sub on Michael Orozco in another like-for-like swap that saw Matt Besler leave the field. The chance to throw an extra attacker on to the field was lost. And it was Mexico who found the match-winning goal at the death.
Having squandered the opportunity to at least force El Tri to weather an attacking storm for the last 10 minutes of USMNT's opening game, Klinsi's approach in Costa Rica was baffling for different reasons. First, he waited until the game was all but lost before he sought to make a change. Next, the changes he made ensured the Kljestan-Pulisic connection that had appeared so promising in prior matches never got a chance to be tested against top-quality opposition.
Los Ticos were two goals up before Klinsmann made his first change - and that change was to swap out Pulisic for Lynden Gooch in the 70th minute. Sacha Kljestan entered the game just a minute later, coming in for Jermaine Jones. And Graham Zusi arrived in place of Fabian Johnson in the 77th minute.
Unfortunately, while those three players were settling in, Joel Campbell was putting the match out of USMNT's reach. Between the 70th and 78th minutes, the USA made three subs and Campbell scored two goals for Costa Rica.
Kljestan was barely noticed for much of his time on the field because much of his time on the field was spent watching Costa Rican players celebrate scoring goals.
What was the point of having Kljestan in the squad at all? His greatest asset to USMNT had seemed to be in his ability to link with Pulisic: never happened. His more general talent is to control space and tempo with his passing, but after seven minutes on the field in Costa Rica, his team was 4-0 down - Sacha's skills, along with every other USMNT player on the field, were irrelevant for the final 10 minutes of the match in San Jose.
With scores level in Columbus and the desire to challenge El Tri's back line, there was a clear role for Sacha toward the end of USMNT's first game in November - at least, the role was clear to everyone but Jurgen Klinsmann. And when the team dropped into a two-goal hole in San Jose, maybe it was the right idea to bring Kljestan in to the game - to see if he could spark Christian Pulisic. But Pulisic left the match at the same time Sacha was getting into it.
Klinsi discovered the Kljestan-Pulisic connection, and then ignored it when it might have been most useful to his team's cause. Ignored it twice, in fact.
I never root against our US Men's National Team and I won't start now. But we have to be honest and we have to say right now: Jurgen Klinsmann deserves to be sacked after a string of poor performances stretching all the way back to the beginning of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup to the semi-final elimination from that tournament by Jamaica, to the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico that cost USMNT a Confederations Cup spot next year.
Throw in the performances at the Copa America Centenario, a poor performance down in Guatemala in the semi-final round of World Cup qualifying, and now the capitulation to our two biggest regional rivals in the opening games of the Hex: Sunil Gulati needs to stop copying the part of the German soccer playbook that says hire Klinsmann to shake things up, and skip ahead to the part that says hire someone else to make things better. If the USMNT head coach has to be A master tactician from Germany, we need Jogi Low, not Jurgen Klinsmann.
As for Sacha Kljestan, his time and abilities were wasted. He was not used in the role or situations in which he could have made a difference, and therefore he made no difference at all. Klinsmann simply used Sacha to add weight to a sinking ship. Here's hoping Captain Klinsi doesn't get another chance to pilot USMNT off course.