Calling an Audible: Changing Coaches in the Hex (Plus: Federations, Know Your Rights)

Posted on February 25, 2013 9:19 pm

What does Jurgen Klinsmann need to save his job?

After the 1-2 setback in Honduras left the US propping up the current Hexagonal table, this uncomfortable question began to circulate among the fans nervously anticipating the upcoming qualifiers against Costa Rica (who haven’t lost to the US since 2005) and at Mexico. It is true that the US Soccer Federation has generally eschewed knee-jerk decisions; to be honest, I cannot even remember the last time a coach of the Red, White and Blue failed to complete two years in charge. Nonetheless, if Clint Dempsey and co. find themselves on fewer than three points by the end of March, even finishing fourth will become an uphill battle, with the team obligated to atone for the slip-up against the ticos with extra points from their away fixtures. A quick look at their 2014 World Cup road performances to date hardly inspires confidence:

- 1-1 at Guatemala
- 1-2 at Jamaica
- 2-1 at Antigua and Barbuda (thanks to a late Eddie Johnson game-winner)
- 1-2 at Honduras

If the worst comes to pass, and one presumes that Sunil Gulati is willing to break from precedent and bring an early curtain down on the Klinsmann era (severance pay and all), what strategy could then be adopted to get the Brazil 2014 campaign back on track? Here we will consider four successful cases of CONCACAF federations switching coaches in the middle of Hexagonal campaigns to pick out elements that might play into the (potential) thought process in Chicago.

2001 Hexagonal

These days, Toluca coach Enrique “Ojitos” Meza is best known for his incredible spell in charge of Pachuca from 2006 to 2009, in which the tuzos got their hands on just about every trophy available to them, save the Club World Cup. But under his watch, the first half of the last round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup proved an absolute nightmare for Mexico. After losing the “Guerra Fría” in the US, the aztecas rebounded by pummeling Jamaica, but failed to win any of their next three games. A 1-1 draw in Trinidad and Tobago was followed by the first and (to date) only Aztecazo in World Cup history, as a late comeback allowed Costa Rica to escape with all three points. Another loss at Honduras left Mexico stranded on four points halfway through; and even though the return leg of the Rio Grande Clásico was less than two weeks away, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) decided to dismiss Meza and roll the dice on then-Pachuca manager Javier Aguirre.

Up to that point, the International Experience section of his resume only featured a 0-4 thrashing suffered against Olimpia in the 2000 CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals in Los Angeles; nonetheless, “el Vasco” quickly led Mexico out of their earlier funk, salvaging pride with a minimum 1-0 win against the US before finishing runners-up in the 2001 Copa América. In the last Hex matches in September and October, Mexico racked up victories against Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras, with only a draw at table-topping Costa Rica preventing Aguirre from compiling a perfect record. A tight second-place finish, however, was enough for his side to punch their tickets to Japan.

2005 Hexagonal

What was historic about the World Cup qualifier held on March 30, 2005 between Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica?

My colleague Roger Allaway can correct me if memory fails, but I cannot think of any other instance in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in which a match was so disappointing that both coaches got fired afterwards. Neither could claim to have been blindsided, however; prior to Matchday 3 of the 2005 Hex, Trinidad and Tobago coach Bertille St. Clair had overseen a disappointing 1-2 home loss against the US and a humiliating 1-5 demolition at Guatemala. As for a certain Jorge Luis Pinto, three points after two home games (a loss to Mexico and a victory over Panama) kept him rooted to the thin ice left by Costa Rica’s turbulent run in the semifinal round, featuring a painful 2-5 beating meted out by Honduras at the Estadio Saprissa.

The underwhelming 0-0 draw between Soca Warriors and ticos at the Hasely Crawford Stadium convinced both sides that urgent change was necessary, with both St. Clair and Pinto receiving their pink slips. Costa Rica opted for Alexandre Guimaraes, a seasoned veteran of two World Cups (1990 as a player and 2002 as coach); under his guidance, Paulo Wanchope and co. vanquished all visitors to the Saprissa and grabbed a vital away victory against an inexperienced Panama to qualify for Germany 2006 with a game to spare. While Trinidad and Tobago opted to hand the reins to an outsider, the Dutch Leo Beenhakker (ex-coach of Real Madrid, América and Chivas) led them to fourth place based on the same formula, with a bonus three points in Panama supplementing three straight home victories (including a crucial 3-2 triumph over Guatemala and a controversial win over Mexico on the last matchday) to reach the intercontinental playoff against Bahrain. Although the Gulf state held the advantage after a 1-1 draw in Trinidad and Tobago, a Dennis Lawrence header in the return leg earned his country the distinction of qualifying for their first-ever World Cup finals.

2009 Hexagonal

Not all foreign experiments are the same, though: under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Mexico needed a Vicente Matias Vuoso equalizer in Canada to avoid missing out entirely on the Hex. Once there, losses in the US and Honduras and a less-than-convincing 2-0 win over Costa Rica led the FMF to drop the Swede and recall their savior from 2001.

This time, el Vasco’s first game back in charge ended inauspiciously, with Mexico succumbing to a 2-1 loss at El Salvador; the tight victory over Trinidad and Tobago that followed hardly increased hopes of a South African adventure. While hitting rock bottom by receiving a three-game suspension in the 2009 Gold Cup for kicking the Panamanian Ricardo Phillips, Aguirre made use of the off-beat tournament to blood a new generation, featuring Miguel Sabah, Guillermo Franco, Pumas standouts Pablo Barrera and Efrain Juarez, and u-17 World Cup winners Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela. After comfortably seeing off Haiti in the quarterfinals and squeaking past Costa Rica on penalties, the aztecas welcomed Aguirre back to the bench by ending a decade of futility on US soil and utterly crushing the hosts 5-0 to win the Gold Cup. With self-belief restored, Mexico pulled off a comeback to drop the US 2-1 at the Azteca through a late Miguel Sabah strike; and a spectacular performance by Gio led to a 3-0 away victory over Costa Rica. A pair of home victories over Honduras and El Salvador later, and the rescue mission was complete.

While different levels of desperation influenced the decision-making process in each of the four cases, and coaches with different pedigrees were called upon to right the ship, we can identify two common factors that contributed to their mutual success. First, in all four cases, the switch occurred before the second half of the Hexagonal, allowing the coaches enough time to implement their own preferred lineups, formations and tactics. Second, all three coaches had previous experience in our region, including CONCACAF competitions for Aguirre and Guimaraes.

With this mind, should the US flub their lines against Costa Rica and Mexico, the period following the Azteca trip would appear the ideal time to fire Klinsmann, if at all. Dropping him in the middle of the June fixtures would risk destabilizing the team; and by full-time on June 18, only four matches would remain, including uncomfortable trips to Costa Rica and Panama. As far as ideal replacements with continental experience, the stable of successful MLS coaches in the CONCACAF Champions League era would provide the best candidates, namely (in order from most to least likely, in this author’s opinion): Dominic Kinnear, Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid and Jason Kreis.

Let me finish by addressing CONCACAF’s latest update on the next Gold Cup. To anyone familiar with the modus operandi of the previous Warner-Blazer regime, the last sentence is disconcerting, to say the least.

The 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup groups and schedules will be announced mid-March.

Emphasis mine.

In and of itself, the sentence does not entirely negate the possibility of a draw; but until General Secretary Enrique Sanz commits to following the precedent set for the 2013 Hexagonal calendar, we must entertain the possibility (some would say likelihood) that the groups will once again be determined behind closed doors.

I have suggested a way that a live Gold Cup draw could be conducted while later placing games where they would be best attended, and have written directly to CONCACAF on the matter (although the post got quickly got buried amongst the requests for opening-day discounts). Regardless of if they take my proposal into consideration, there is a more direct mechanism that federations can use to make sure that the groups are determined in a transparent manner. As I mentioned last year, the most recent CONCACAF Statutes count the following among its responsibilities to member associations:

To notify all participating Associations, in writing, the date and place of the drawing for any tournament
organized in agreement with Article 3.2, at least 30 days
before the date of the drawing so that the Associations
can be present if they wish to do so.

That is, the football federations/associations of Canada, El Salvador, Panama and everyone else involved in the next Gold Cup are entirely within their rights to send representatives to Miami to observe the draw. If you want to see the federations pressure CONCACAF to ensure transparency in this process, let me suggest: now is the time to contact and encourage them to attend this event.

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