World Cup Qualifying: U.S. Men’s Team — And Its Coach — Need A Win Tonight | WBEZ
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World Cup Qualifying: U.S. Men's Team — And Its Coach — Need A Win Tonight

The U.S. men's national soccer team plays Guatemala tonight, in a crucial qualifying game in Columbus, Ohio, that could decide if it plays in the 2018 World Cup. The U.S. lost the first-round game 2-0 in Guatemala City on Friday, in a performance that soccer commentator Craig Burley called "an utter shambles."

It was the first time that the United States had lost to Guatemala in 21 games, and the latest in a number of disappointments for the U.S. while playing teams such as Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico and Costa Rica. A loss this evening could keep the U.S. out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Much of the blame for the team's spotty performance has been laid at the feet of coach Jürgen Klinsmann, one of the most famous names in international soccer. He was part of the German team that won the World Cup in 1990, and played for some of the world's top teams — including AC Milan, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich. As a manager, he coached the German national team to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup.

So it seemed like quite a coup when U.S. Soccer Federation signed Klinsmann to coach the men's national team in July 2011. Although the U.S. made it to the Round of 16 in the World Cup in Brazil two years ago, his tenure has been controversial. Klinsmann has many defenders, but even some of those, such as SB Nation's Bill Connelly, admit the overall record has been mixed.

Commentators like Graham Parker blame frequent changes in lineup and strategy. "The team feels as if it exists in a permanently provisional state," he wrote in The Guardian on Saturday, and a number of others agree with the sentiment in this LA Times headline today: "Another loss to Guatemala could spell the end for U.S. soccer coach Jürgen Klinsmann"

Still, supporters of the U.S. team should not lose hope — The Associated Press notes that the team has been here before: "The U.S. was in a similar position in the standings four years ago, when it had three points after three matches and was coming off a loss at Jamaica that had some questioning Klinsmann's decisions. The Americans responded with a 1-0 home win over the Reggae Boyz."

Tonight's game starts at 7 p.m. ET. You can watch it on ESPN 2.

And if the U.S. loses? There's always that (very) faint chance of an upset among other teams in the group that could let the U.S. through.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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