All we want is to understand. We don't need to agree with all the decisions our leaders make, but we at least want to know why they did what they did. This is an almost universal truth, whether it's politics, sports or even school. If we understand our leaders, chances are that we'll follow them without too much grumbling.
Jurgen Klinsmann, for better or worse, doesn't seem inclined to play this game. The United States national team manager seems to have a knack for confounding us at every term (and by "us" I mean journalists, fans, commentators, whatever). Almost from the beginning, Klinsmann has charted his own path for the USMNT, promising big changes but giving us only scant insight as to how he plans to get there.
In that context, the last few weeks should probably not be as surprising as they turned out. Call in 30 players a full week earlier than he needed to? Of course. Cut that list of players down to 23 nearly two weeks before the deadline? Why not. Get rid of the leading scorer in the country's history? Sure. Bring two players too young to drink who have zero international starts between them? Let's do it. Construct a roster with just three natural center backs and use one of those spots on a player with just three caps? Break it down!
All of it has been done with only the thinnest bit of public explanation. Heck, the players themselves apparently didn't even get any private explanations.
As players returned to their club teams, there was a near-universal sense that the much discussed open competition for spots never really happened. Brad Evans, who had established himself as a USMNT right back, spent almost all his time during his eight days of training camp at center back. Landon Donovan, whose spot on the team we were led to believe was mostly about getting fit, supposedly ranked near the top in all the physical tests. Clarence Goodson was one of only four bonafide center backs in camp, paid his dues in qualifying, has looked strong during his return to MLS and is feeling especially aggrieved after being denied an explanation. It's not that the decision to cut any of these players is impossible to understand, it's just that we've been given no real insight into Klinsmann's reasoning.
Unsurprisingly, we're having a tough time with all of this.
Klinsmann discusses the most difficult decision of his coaching career: Cutting Landon Donovan.
The desire for information creates a vacuum, and if we find the official lines less than satisfying that space is usually filled by our own theories. The one gaining the most traction is that Klinsmann is simply looking ahead to 2018 and virtually punting this year's tournament. But there are also popular ones out there suggesting Klinsmann's exclusion of certain players was mostly about personality clashes, particularly with Donovan. The idea that Klinsmann's mind was mostly made up before he opened camp also has some legs. These are just some of the more reasonable attempts to climb into Klinsmann's brain.
They also lack a certain logic. No coach, no matter how secure they believe their job to be, is going to sacrifice the very real opportunity to win now in exchange for a vague sense that his chances might be improved in four years. Leaving Donovan off the team was surely somewhat personal, but as Alexi Lalas is fond of saying, every coaching decision is personal. Explaining the decision to effectively cut the tryout short is a bit harder to explain, but it surely made sense to Klinsmann. After all, Klinsmann did not become one of the most successful players in history by wasting his few opportunities on the world's biggest stage. He's got a plan. We just don't know what it is.
There's an inherent risk in doing things this way, of course. Klinsmann has opened himself up to a level of criticism that his predecessors did not. Whatever we thought of the choices Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Steve Simpson made (we'll limit ourselves to coaches during the modern era of USA soccer), parsing out their motivations was never very challenging. They might not have done a much better job of explaining themselves, but no one questioned their loyalty to the badge or that they had the program's best interests at heart because of it.
But Klinsmann didn't take the reins of U.S. Soccer to play things safe. When he took the job he did so with the promise to change the culture, to force us to do things differently. There have been some rough patches up until now, but the last year had been almost unbelievably smooth. The easiest thing Klinsmann could have done was bring Donovan and rely upon the players who guided the United States through qualifying. He chose to make the hard choices, the pick the players he thinks are most capable of helping the United States compete against the likes of Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
Klinsmann has opened himself up for lots of criticism. But he knew that. He almost seems to welcome it. Watching it unfold, especially without a road map, is making us all a little uneasy. Only time will tell if he's right, and maybe then we'll understand.