Wiebe: Forget about Jurgen Klinsmann, US players' legacies on the line

Bradley & Dempsey - USMNT - 2016

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For two hours on Tuesday night, it doesn’t matter what you think of Jurgen Klinsmann. It doesn’t matter what you think about the lineup, roster or player pool. It doesn’t matter what you think of Copa America Centenario.

For two hours, during a “must-win” match against Costa Rica at Soldier Field (8 pm ET; FS1, UniMas and UDN), the social media-fueled cacophony that shapes the narrative around the US national team is moot.

Yes, the US might benefit from a midfield manned by Darlington Nagbe, a passing savant who completes better than 90 percent of his passes for the US. You’re right, Clint Dempsey isn’t technically a true No. 9. Sure, you could argue that identifying a left back who allows Fabian Johnson, one of the Bundesliga’s top wingers, to play a more advanced role would have been prudent. Or that Christian Pulisic deserves more time or Jordan Morris, Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj should be in the squad.

To quote DeAndre Yedlin, “shout out to all the soccer experts,” myself included. After almost five years of Klinsmann as U.S. Soccer’s main protagonist, we’re mostly talked out.

And tonight, none of the talk matters. Just the result. Go direct. Fight and claw. Do whatever you have to do. Find a way, any way, to win. Frankly, the alternative – outright elimination after two matches should the US lose – is embarrassing.  

So forget the variation of the 4-3-3 that you think would finally unlock the US’s potential, forget that overlooked player that deserves a call-up and forget about Jozy Altidore’s hamstrings. Hell, forget about Klinsmann.

Forget about everything but the fact that tonight is about arguably the most talented US team in history proving themselves, in spite of everything swirling around them and perhaps in spite of their coach.

Asked about Gyasi Zardes’ comfort level on the wing on Monday, certainly not for the first time, US captain Michael Bradley simplified the narrative. After a rough game of his own vs. Colombia marked by a number of uncharacteristic turnovers, he shouldered the responsibility.

“More than talking about little details like that, my point is that, again, you guys at times want to find a few things and talk about them,” Bradley said, “and I would go the other way and say in a basic way we need more guys to play better and play better as a team.”

It’s worth repeating: “We need more guys to play better and play better as a team.”

And therein lies the truth. If they want to advance to the quarterfinals, if they want to avoid disaster, a group finale with only pride on the line, the US players have to play better against Costa Rica (and Paraguay) – lineup, formation and tactics be damned.

Because if the US flame out – more gracious hosts than actual competitors – it won’t just be an indictment of Klinsmann, no matter your opinion of the man. It will be an indictment of Bradley. And Clint Dempsey. And Jermaine Jones, Brad Guzan, Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya and every other player on the roster.

We remember the 2002 quarterfinalists – O'Brien, Reyna, Sanneh, Pope, McBride, Landon Donovan and the rest . We remember the team that made an against-all-odds run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final. We remember Donovan’s goal against Algeria, and Tim Howard building a wall Belgium could barely knock down.

What will we remember from this group?

Lose and it will be their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost before it ever truly came into focus. Klinsmann will place the blame on them, and he won’t be entirely wrong to do so. He may have set them up to fail, but they’ll still be complicit.

Win and the narrative could take another turn. This could be the group that rebounded from disappointment, that emerged from Klinsmann’s shadow to do something special on home soil. The group that proved all the talk was just that.

For two hours tonight, “all the soccer experts” don’t matter. All that matters is whether 14 players are able to make the best of it with their backs against the wall. Their legacies depend on it.