United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati took a bold step on Thursday, firing head coach Bob Bradley just one year after handing him a new four-year contract. It's a move that was met by cheers from many fans of U.S. soccer, many of whom who believed that Bradley was either incompetent and/or that no coach should be in charge of a national team for two World Cup cycles. The question now turns to who will replace Bradley as head coach with all signs pointing to it being Gulati's long-time crush, Jurgen Klinsmann.
It's not much of a secret that Gulati has sought Klinsmann for years now. In fact, Bradley's entire time as U.S. coach has been overshadowed by Gulati's incessant yearning for Klinsmann. When Bruce Arena was dismissed following the 2006 World Cup Gulati wanted to bring in Klinsmann to lead the U.S. team, but after courting him for four months the deal fell apart and Gulati hired Bradley as an interim head coach. Bradley eventually was shed of the interim tag, but after an awful 2009 Gold Cup final, people were calling for Klinsmann again. After the 2010 World Cup Bradley was left in limbo while Gulati chased Klinsmann once more, only for Bradley to be brought back again. After blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2011 Gold Cup final there was talk that Bradley had to be fired for, you guessed it, Klinsmann. Well, it took some time, but a little more than a month after that 4-2 loss to Mexico in the final, Bradley has gotten the axe and it looks like Klinsmann is coming in.
The question is why Gulati wants Klinsmann so badly. I suppose he gets some credibility for being a legendary player, but should that really matter? Lots of amazing players have gone on to be terrible managers, meanwhile Jose Mourinho could barely be classified as having had a professional playing career of note.
What Klinsmann continues to stand on as a manager is his time in charge of Germany at the 2006 World Cup. He took over an aging squad that had been embarrassed at Euro 2004, shed the dead weight, brought in some young guys and took them to the World Cup semifinals on home soil. It's something that could be on the top line of any resume and on being the manager of a World Cup semifinalist alone he would walk in as the most accomplished head coach that the U.S. has ever had.
A closer inspection of Klinsmann's tenure as Germany manager chips away at some of Klinsmann's shine though. A match-by-match look at Germany's 2006 World Cup doesn't show anything overly impressive. They finished stop of a group comprised of Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador. Impressive? He beat Sweden in the round of 16, hardly a win of epic proportions. Taking out Argentina in the quarterfinals was a nice win, but that was one of the more average Argentine teams in recent years and it took penalty kicks to get by them. When Germany was really tested was in the semifinals and that's where their run came to an end as Italy disposed of them. Six matches, one top notch team and a loss to them with a win over an average Argentina team as the highlight and all while having the advantage of playing in front of raucous home crowds.
Following the tournament Klinsmann was looked at as a German hero, but that is because his success was judged against a disappointing and underachieving 2004 Euro team, not what reasonable expectations were for a team full of talent playing on home soil against middling teams. Nobody is going to say that making a World Cup semifinal doesn't mean much, especially for a U.S. team that has only gone that far once and that was way back in 1930. That said, Klinsmann wasn't a miracle worker and that's even when taking into account that his impact on that 2006 team has been questioned with some attributing much of the tactical success to current Germany coach and then assistant, Joakim Low.
Klinsmann has had one other managerial job and he was a downright terrible. He took over a Bayern Munich team that won the Bundesliga the previous year and drove them down the table, saw them get knocked out in the cup quarterfinals and with the dressing room is pieces, was fired before the season ended. In his partial season Klinsmann's tactical naivete was exposed, his scouting abilities were questioned and the club found itself several steps back from where they were when he took over.
Now it looks like he's ready to take over the U.S. team and if so supporters better bunker down for some rough times. Those who liked to question Bradley tactics, and there were instances that deserved plenty of questioning, conveniently forget that there were times where Bradley was tactically brilliant. He was the first manager to pressure high up the field against Argentina and make it difficult for Lionel Messi to get service instead of dropping deeper to double mark the Argentine wonder. He narrowed the field against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal and was still able to stretch them vertically with Charlie Davies up top. Nobody will call Bradley a tactical genius, but he's shown to be much more tactically adept than Klinsmann so if tactics were an issue for Bradley, what will they be for the German?
More than anything, Klinsmann will be hamstrung by the thing that managers are most dependent on, his players. American fans like to pretend that the U.S. team should continue their upward arc from the early and mid 2000's and a new manager will push the U.S. to those new heights they dream of. The simple fact is that the Americans don't have the players to excel right now.
The U.S. team is without a single average centerback, let alone two. The left back position is still a mess, even if two matches of Eric Lichaj will convince some otherwise. On top of all that, Brian McBride remains the last halfway decent striker that the U.S. has had. Meanwhile, the supposed strength of the team, midfield, is filled with many good players, but nobody exceptional and the team's two stars, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, are nearing 30 years old. The U.S. team is struggling right now because of deficiencies in the player pool, something that will be true no matter the manager.
Bradley has had his issues. He's had many issues, but he is still the manager that led the U.S. to the 2007 Gold Cup title, first place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, second place in the 2009 Confederations Cup and won his group at the 2010 World Cup. Contrary to delusional, but somehow popular belief, not just anybody can do a better job than him. The player pool will not allow for it and the emergence of the best Mexico team in at least a decade will only make things tougher for the Americans.
Firing Bradley to bring in a top-notch head coach could do a lot for the U.S. It wouldn't improve the player pool and it wouldn't turn the U.S. into a World Cup contender, but it could lift the team. Firing Bradley to bring in Klinsmann, well it's all too predictable and disappointing. Klinsmann will have until June 8, 2012, the start of World Cup qualifying, to build his team, but the man who has yet to impress as a manager and is much more a big-time name than a big-time coach will have his work cut out for him. And when he's done, the U.S. fans will be yearning for the days when Klinsmann was just Gulati's love interest, not the man stalking the touchline.