GUATEMALA CITY -- From the moment that Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. men's national team in 2011, it seemed as if there has been a battle raging from within.
Sometimes it seemed to be a conflict between Klinsmann and the players in how best to move the program forward. It has manifested itself in baffling lineup choices, confusing tactics and even more puzzling decisions on how best to usher out the old and bring in the new. Current form mattered ... until it didn't. Then there have been moments where Klinsmann seemed at war with himself. Should he go pragmatic, or idealistic? A man in conflict.
There have been moments when Klinsmann has achieved a sort of equilibrium, such as during the latter stages of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and even at the tournament itself. But at present, what is evident is a U.S. national team that is currently thrashing about, unsure of what it is or where it's heading.
This was never more evident than in Friday's 2-0 defeat to Guatemala in a World Cup qualifier. Assignments were blown, individual battles were lost, and perhaps most damning of all, tentative, passive mistakes were made.
When Michael Bradley was asked what the U.S. needed to do better in Tuesday's return encounter against Guatemala, he said: "Everything."
In these moments, the question gets raised: Is it the fault of the coach or the players? The answer is both, though Klinsmann doesn't help himself during such examinations. His impulse is to blame the players first, and himself second -- that is when he does the latter at all. When asked about the two very preventable goals his team conceded inside the game's first 15 minutes, Klinsmann said they were down to "a lack of focus, concentration and wrong decisions."
And why was this? One would expect "focus" to be at its highest level at the start of a game.
"That's a good question for the players," said Klinsmann, before adding that Guatemala didn't do much after going up 2-0, which ignored the fact that the home side didn't need to.
It wasn't until later, when queried directly about if he questions his own decisions, that Klinsmann became more introspective, and even then he wasn't entirely convincing.
"You question [decisions] every time, no matter if you win or lose, you question everything that happens during a game," he said. "Then you question yourself. 'Was this the right lineup? Was this the right substitutions? Was this the right way to approach it? Should we have done something differently, and better?'
"Absolutely you question that, and you figure out how you can fix this, this and this. At the end of the day, these two mistakes led to goals. You just have to swallow it, because those are individual mistakes that you cannot do at this level. That's what happened tonight so we'll take the blame. I take the blame. There's no problem if you want to hear that."
Klinsmann isn't wrong per se. Individual mistakes were indeed made, but some came from his decision-making. When the U.S. lineup came out on Friday, it was clear that the injury-induced absences of Fabian Johnson, John Brooks and Matt Besler tied Klinsmann's hands to a degree. But Geoff Cameron and Michael Orozco seemed as though they should have swapped positions, with Cameron playing centrally instead of at right-back, and Orozco moving out wide.
The opening exchanges witnessed the U.S. backline looking shaky indeed and both Omar Gonzalez and Orozco were caught flat-footed by Carlos Ruiz for the second Guatemala goal.
With Jermaine Jones suspended, Mix Diskerud seemed ill suited to a match where graft was going to be prized, especially with a player like Kyle Beckerman available. It was no accident that Diskerud was victimized for the first goal when Rafael Morales out-jumped him to nod home a corner.
Afterward, Klinsmann indicated he chose Diskerud for his ability to move the ball -- the idealist emerging again -- before criticizing both Diskerud and Michael Bradley for not supporting the forwards enough. A more contrite approach from Klinsmann just might score more points in the locker room and in public, but blame assignment only gets a coach -- or player -- so far, and obscures the bigger question. How do you fix this team?
For some, that will be firing the coach, but Klinsmann's position still seems solid. USSF president Sunil Gulati said he wasn't concerned about the team's direction.
"It's not game-to-game like that," he said. "We get a good result on Tuesday, which we expect, then things are back on track."
But the fault lines in this U.S. team seem too deep to be cured by one victory over a Guatemala side ranked 95th in the world by FIFA. Such fissures have been visible previously, only for both the team and Klinsmann to work together to find some cohesion. Now those rifts seem to be emerging again. When added to the context of last summer's disappointing performances in the Gold Cup, the team is regressing.
The way forward is that Klinsmann must find some stability in his lineup choices, both at the back, and in the spine of the team. Decide on a goalkeeper; narrow down a center-back pairing.; find a partner for Bradley; decide where DeAndre Yedlin best fits into this team and leave him there.
This process can best be accomplished at this summer's Copa America Centenario, though some of it can begin against Guatemala on Tuesday. To that end, Klinsmann needs to veer back toward the pragmatic. The U.S. now desperately needs a victory. If it doesn't get one, a very different kind of battle -- World Cup qualification itself -- will hang in the balance.