Welcome back to the place we've revisited all too often during the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
Just as the United States men's national team appeared to take a step ahead in the Copa America Centenario, they regressed in their 4-0 semifinal loss to Argentina. In all honesty, the game was more lopsided than the result suggests.
After preaching an aggressive style for most of the competition, Klinsmann aligned his side in the most conservative setup possible. By trotting out an ineffective starting XI set to defend and nothing else, Klinsmann failed the USMNT in their biggest match since the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
With three regular starters missing from the lineup due to disciplinary suspensions, Klinsmann brought in three veterans of the squad to try and find a way past the No. 1-ranked international side in the world.
However, the changes backfired immediately, as the Yanks were left to defend for their lives from the first minute on. With no outlet to play to up top, the USMNT aimlessly launched the ball forward on the opening kick-off and instantly allowed Argentina to build up their attack through the back.
Argentina took the wind out of the American sails in the fourth minute, when Ezequiel Lavezzi broke into open space on the left side of the penalty area to head a Lionel Messi pass over the body of Brad Guzan. Klinsmann admitted after the match that his side lost the mental battle once Lavezzi scored, per Goal.com's Thomas Floyd:
The Yanks were unable to set up camp in the Argentina end of the pitch partly due to Chris Wondolowski's inability to do anything productive when he was on the ball. The San Jose Earthquakes man displayed a poor first touch for his entire 45-minute shift, and Klinsmann rightfully took him out of the match at half-time. However, Wondolowski shouldn't have been on the pitch in the first place.
The only excuse you can make for Wondolowski starting is that he has a high motor and can drop back to midfield to gain possession. The 33-year-old did run a decent amount on the green surface at NRG Stadium, but nothing significant came out of what should be his final contest in red, white and blue.
In addition to failing to contribute anything up top, Wondolowski made a careless tackle on Lionel Messi 25 yards from goal with 13 minutes remaining in the first half. Messi punished the USMNT forward for his foul by sending a magnificent free-kick into the top-right corner of the goal. Up until that point, the Yanks displayed a decent response to the opener. If they went into the locker room only down by one goal, the belief in the squad would've come back a little as a lone score would've gotten them back in the game.
Although they put together a decent defensive showing in between the first two Argentina tallies, the Yanks were too focused on defending to make an attempt to move forward. Klinsmann inserted both Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi into the lineup for their defensive qualities, not to push the limits of the Argentina back four, who had a casual walk in the park compared to the quarterfinal test Venezuela handed them on Saturday.
playing too far behind the ball, the Yanks were unable to create pressure on the flanks through their full-backs. The only successful overlap that DeAndre Yedlin produced came in the 36th minute, but after he made a solid run, he gave up the ball in the box on a bad pass. It is unacceptable for a player of Yedlin's pace to make one nice run into the final third over 90 minutes.
While the players deserve plenty of blame for their lack of intensity, Klinsmann must be held accountable as well. The manager is responsible for instilling a positive mindset into his squad even if they fall behind early. The fighting spirit the Yanks displayed in big matches under Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena did not appear with Klinsmann in charge on Tuesday. Five years into his reign, that's a major concern.
For those ready to break out the pitchforks and call for Klinsmann's firing once more, remember that the end goal for the USMNT manager is the 2018 FIFA World Cup. As long as the Yanks are on track to qualify for Russia in two years, he will be in charge.
The only way Klinsmann can get his squad to rebound from a difficult loss to Argentina is to bring fresh ideas into the team. The USMNT boss appeared ready to do that during the Copa by including Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic in the 23-man squad, but neither saw enough playing time. Both creative midfielders only took the pitch as substitutes on two occasions. Instead of building up their in-game experience throughout the tournament, Klinsmann relied too much veterans such as Beckerman, Zusi and Wondolowski to close out games.
At some point, the changing of the guard has to occur in the USMNT lineup. If that means losing a friendly or two, or even Saturday's third-place game, it's worth the cost. Nagbe, Pulisic, Gyasi Zardes, Bobby Wood and John Brooks are going to be a part of the USMNT core for a while, and Saturday is a perfect opportunity to see what they can do as a unit. Based on Klinsmann's stubborn reliance on older players, however, there's no guarantee he will give them that chance.
If you put the tournament as a whole into perspective, the USMNT deserve credit for achieving the stated goal of reaching the semifinals. What leaves a bad taste in the mouths of USMNT fans is how much the Yanks regressed in a short amount of time, even if the lackluster performance came against the one of the best players of all time and the top-ranked side in the world.
Fans should expect the USMNT to challenge for a berth in the final at a major tournament. Klinsmann has lifted expectations to an extent by producing results on the road in friendlies and at the start of big competitions, but the final piece to the puzzle is still missing.
Klinsmann failed to lead the USMNT to the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final, came up short with a berth in the FIFA Confederations Cup on the line in October and reduced his side to a feeble representation of itself on Tuesday.
Change is not coming from the outside, at least not for two more years, so now is the time for Klinsmann to re-evaluate how he manages in top-tier matches and the personnel selections he makes in them. If the USMNT boss can find a way to alter that strategy, the Yanks can reach new heights by the time the next World Cup rolls around.
For now, however, we're left asking more questions about Klinsmann after a match in which the USMNT were supposed to take another step forward in their march toward Russia.