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The case for keeping Jurgen Klinsmann as USMNT manager

Jurgen Klinsmann is a change agent who isn't afraid to make changes and alienate people. That is both his best and worst quality.

International soccer is the ultimate in small samples. In many ways, the volume of results is even smaller than it is for college football. Few games truly matter, and for the United States, most of those that do are against smaller Caribbean or Central American countries.

Meanwhile, friendlies can be interpreted with whatever spin you choose. Overreact to bad losses and ignore good wins? Go for it. Direct opposite? Have at it. You're somewhat correct either way.

With such a small pool of results from which to choose, the decision to fire a coach is going to be based on either tiny samples or large waves of meaningless matches. No matter what criteria we choose, we'll probably be overreacting to something.

Let's ignore the emotions of a frustrating Gold Cup semifinal loss (and a frustrating Gold Cup in general) for a moment and look at the entire picture for Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure as United States manager and technical director. We'll ignore a small handful of friendlies that took place in the fall of 2011, when he first came aboard -- results both decent (wins over Honduras and Slovenia, draw against Mexico, 1-0 losses to Belgium and France) and less so (losses to Costa Rica and Ecuador) -- and start with 2012.

Since the start of 2012, Klinsmann has 26 wins, four losses and six draws against CONCACAF opponents overall. That includes friendlies, World Cup qualifying, and two Gold Cups. That's dominant by any definition, even adjusting for the level of opponent. And perhaps as importantly, the U.S. was seemingly miles behind Mexico when Bob Bradley's tenure ended; four years later, Klinsmann's next loss to the neighbors to the south will be his first: he's got three wins (including an historic one in Mexico City) and three draws (also including one at Estadio Azteca) against El Tri.

The U.S. has lost just once to a CONCACAF mate at home (Wednesday night against Jamaica), and that match followed a classic soccer upset script: create more chances, control most of the match, lose by an inch here and a post there.

Meanwhile, in these last four years, the U.S. has not only beaten Mexico three times but has beaten Germany twice, Italy once and the Netherlands once. The USMNT finally slayed the Ghana dragon in last year's World Cup, came within a stoppage time goal of beating Portugal a few days later (instead settling for a draw), and came within a flukey, late-in-regulation botched goal of beating Belgium and advancing to the World Cup quarterfinals.

This is positive spin, of course. It ignores some frustrating friendly results here and there, it ignores that Belgium controlled most of that World Cup match and it downplays the Jamaica loss, which, as flukey as it may have been, was the team's worst loss on home soil in a really, really long time.

Still, it's also pretty effective spin. In four years, given few opportunities for truly impressive results, the U.S. has come up with quite a few of them. And while Klinsmann caught a lot of flack for a series of frustrating friendly results last winter and spring, a) this "frustration" is drastically overstated -- from September to July, the U.S. still won six friendlies, lost four, and tied three, and only one result (the blowout loss to Ireland) was truly awful, and b) his friendly record over four years is still far better than that of Bradley's last four years, even if you ignore the names on the opponents' shirts:

  • Bradley's last 4 years: 9 wins, 12 losses, 6 draws (33 'points' in 27 matches, 1.22 per match)
  • Klinsmann's first 4 years: 20 wins, 12 losses, 8 draws (68 'points' in 40 matches, 1.70 per match)

Considering Klinsmann's charge was to both create results and develop the player pool for the future, he's done fine. Not great, not amazing, but fine. He's come up with some nice wins, and he's introduced exciting, likable young players like DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes to a larger audience. Losses like the one to Jamaica happen in this sport. The timing was horrifying, but it was still a match the U.S. wins more often than not.


Let's put this another way: I spoke with some people associated with German soccer for a feature that will go up in the coming weeks. To a man, they were quick to ask about Klinsmann and his relationship with U.S. fans, and they were baffled by my response.

Them: "They don't like Jurgen? Why?"

Me: "Well, he's had some bad results in friendlies..."

Them: "...and?"

Me: "He's fought with the MLS a little bit."

Them: "So?"

Me: "He dumped Landon."

Them: "[confused look]"

That was before the Jamaica loss, sure, but it was also before the away wins over the Netherlands and Germany.


The problems many have with Klinsmann right now are the problems they signed up for when they clamored for him in the first place.

Your best and worst qualities are usually close to the same, and for Klinsmann, that quality is without a doubt an obsession with asking questions. Klinsmann is a change agent and a pretty good one. He is going to ask you tough questions, and he's going to stare at you until you answer, no matter how uncomfortable you get in the process.

While he probably gets too much credit for his role in turning around the fortunes of the German national team*, he also might not get enough for his role in modernizing Bayern Munich when he was hired in 2008. Bayern's fortunes were fading; within the Bundesliga, the Reds were as solid as ever, having won the league in four of the previous six seasons. But the club was stagnant internationally. After winning the Champions League in 2001, they failed to advance past the quarterfinals in the six years that followed; three times, they didn't even make it that far. And in 2008, they didn't even qualify -- they played in the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) and lost in the semifinals to Zenit St. Petersburg.

* He was instrumental in the development and deployment of quite a few young German players, and he dragged a young national team with minimal expectations (by Germany's standards) to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup. But the Bundesliga lost a lot of money in the early-2000s, and clubs were also forced to lean more heavily on younger talent from within the country's borders, which also helped to develop the player pool.

Bayern was stuck in a rut and took a chance on Klinsmann. He responded by making as many changes as possible behind the scenes. He got Bayern further involved with video and game analysis than it had been, he introduced more modern nutritional and practice regimens. To those in the offices at Sabener Straße, the way Bayern prepared for a game changed dramatically. (To the players, the changes were admittedly less obvious.)

Of course, he attempted more change than the club was comfortable with, and after less than one full season, he and the club agreed that the relationship was doomed.

Klinsmann wasn't with Bayern long enough to either succeed or fail, but he stirred the waters. His modernization efforts helped to set the table for that of Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes (who reached two Champions League finals, winning in 2013), and now Pep Guardiola (who has made the semifinals twice in two years). Perhaps he is meant to be a table setter instead of a successful manager, but he's still pretty effective at that.


When he was hired to basically hold two distinct, vital roles within U.S. Soccer -- manager and technical director -- Klinsmann set out to achieve a single goal: create a program that can compete with the world's heavyweights. To date, this has resulted in both his brightest and darkest moments. The U.S. has seemingly played its best against the most relevant teams it has faced: Germany, Italy, Mexico, et cetera. But this approach has also revealed something pretty damning: he doesn't give a single crap about CONCACAF opponents. The loss to Jamaica further established that; while the U.S. was the better team for a majority the match, they seemed ill-prepared for the things Jamaica did the best. It was as if Kilnsmann trusted that pure talent would do the job and that Jamaica's strengths were not worthy of tactical shifts.

Beyond that, his team selection for this summer's Gold Cup did not seem to come from an "I want my best possible lineup on the field" approach; it was more experimental, a chance to learn more about certain players.

Now, as Kevin McCauley wrote a few days ago, that isn't particularly rare.

Gold Cup performances and squads rarely tell us anything about where a team is headed in the last cycle. [...]

Because it comes a year after the World Cup, the Gold Cup is often used to evaluate older players to see if they have one last serious run in them. The likes of Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando, Brad Evans and Chris Wondolowski aren't going to feature in many (or any) Hex matches. Clint Dempsey will stick around for a bit, but probably won't make it to Russia. Guys like Tim Ream, Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi are facing a serious fight to stay relevant throughout this cycle. And alongside all of them, a small handful of prime-age players will suffer injuries or will just turn out to be not quite good enough.

There are lots of mid-20s players who haven't gotten their shot yet, plus Under-20 World Cup stars and future Under-23 Olympic qualifying team players who are going to get into the team this cycle. Lots of them. Meanwhile, most of the players who we don't think are good enough to help the USMNT when it really matters will fade off into the sunset very shortly.

Still, we've been teased with beautiful play, and we've gotten tantalizing but small glimpses of younger players in the pool. To watch players like Brad Evans, Kyle Beckerman and a struggling Ventura Alvarado starting in an elimination game was maddening. But Klinsmann's selections -- both in terms of who starts and who is on the 23-man squad at all -- told us that he was indeed looking at this tournament as another chance to evaluate the 2018 pool.

It was the same way in those supposedly damning post-World Cup friendlies. The team would do fine for 60 minutes, then Klinsmann would sub in newcomers to get their feet wet and the U.S. would give up late goals to turn wins into draws and draws into losses. This was frustrating for those looking for results, but he didn't seem to care. (And honestly, he shouldn't have. His subs had a purpose, even if they meant throwing inexperienced or less talented players into deep waters.)

One assumes the US would have played well against Mexico in the finals (since that's what tends to happen), but in five matches, the team was shuffled constantly and only briefly found its way out of second gear. And when the Americans encountered some frustration against Jamaica, generating constant chances in the first 20 minutes or so but failing to get the ball in the net, they faltered. That shouldn't happen, especially in a manager's fourth year on the job. Obviously.


We know how this marriage is going to end. When you hire Jurgen Klinsmann, you're hiring someone who is going to ask questions, pick at scabs, make as many behind-the-scenes changes as he is allowed to make and probably eventually get fired after he has alienated too many people.

You're also signing up to probably be better off when he leaves than you were when he arrived. That's the way it worked for the German national team and, to some degree, for Bayern Munich, and that's the way it will probably be with the USMNT. With his blue-chip recruiting -- he has secured the services of dual nationals like Gedion Zelalem and Aron Jóhannsson, not to mention 2014 World Cup contributors Fabian Johnson, Julian Green and John Brooks -- Klinsmann has helped to create a young base of talent that is broader and deeper than it has ever been. He has by most accounts raised the bar from a fitness perspective, and he has attempted to introduce more aesthetically pleasing, offense-friendly tactics, albeit with drastically hit-or-miss results.

But while these young players develop, we have been forced to watch him constantly tinker with lineups and give extended opportunities to players who haven't backed up the faith with performance. (And for all of his success in broadening certain areas of the player pool, the U.S. is still dangerously low on defenders.) In that way, perhaps the Jamaica result will serve a purpose -- it will finish off some experiments that probably should have ended a while back.

It is a contradiction of human nature that we are willing to admit that changes need to occur, but we resist basically every change along the way. Klinsmann has proven himself better as a technical director than a manager, and his (often futile) insistence on European experience for his players has frustrated those trying to further the profile of MLS.

But despite setbacks, Klinsmann has to date managed to improve the USMNT's overall results while also installing a bright future. And if the future looks solid and the present doesn't look nearly as bad as we seem to want to think, there's really no need for a move yet. This marriage is going to end one day, and it probably won't be pretty, but it's not time just yet. There is a bit more water that needs stirring first.

That said, the U.S. will play either Jamaica or Mexico in a playoff to reach the 2017 Confederations Cup this October. I would highly advise Klinsmann win that match.


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