The United States men's national team's Gold Cup losses to Jamaica and Panama were pretty embarrassing, and they have a lot of people wondering if Jurgen Klinsmann should be removed as head coach. Another contingent of fans thinks Klinsmann should keep his job because of all the good he's done for American soccer. They're both right.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati spent five years courting Klinsmann and finally got his man in 2011 by giving Klinsmann full control of the program and the shiny job title he always coveted: head coach and technical director. In addition to Klinsmann's duties as senior team manager -- a full time job by itself -- the buck stops with him in all matters of youth development. He doesn't just have a say in the operation of the Under-20 and Under-17 national teams, he also created a new Under-23 national team and influences how the Development Academy system works. It's a huge task, and it's way too big for one person.
The half of his job that Klinsmann is less suited for is clearly the management of the senior national side. He said that winning the Gold Cup was his top priority this summer, then put together an unbalanced roster and spent the group stage experimenting with personnel. Against Jamaica, he fielded a team in a formation that they hadn't played in since February.
"The luck was not with us, and maybe we weren't clinical enough to put it in there," said Klinsmann after the 2-1 loss. "Effort wise, rhythm wise, passing combinations — everything was there. That was a lot of good stuff we saw. But the goals weren't there."
It's fair to demand that Klinsmann be judged by his team’s overall quality of play instead of their results -- fluke losses happen to everyone. But if that's the standard he's being held to, the World Cup is suddenly the more indicting performance. The USMNT was outplayed by Ghana and only won because of a combination of bad finishing by the Black Stars and some good goalkeeping by Tim Howard. They outplayed Portugal, but gave up a 95th minute equalizer because Klinsmann abruptly changed from a back four to a back five late in the game. They did nothing against Germany. Their Round of 16 match against Belgium was probably the second-most lopsided game of the entire World Cup (Germany-Brazil is the clear winner in that category), and they were again saved from an historic thrashing by Howard, who turned in the greatest individual performance by an American at the World Cup, ever. Only one good performance, and it featured a bad coaching decision that led directly to two dropped points.
If we're judging Klinsmann on results, the World Cup was obviously a job well done, but the rest of his tenure has plenty of shaky moments. Back-to-back bad finishes against Guatemala and Jamaica in the third round of World Cup qualifying brought the U.S. to the brink of not even making the Hex. They needed a 90th minute miracle goal to beat Antigua and Barbuda. Their 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca is impressive in a vacuum, but not in context -- Jamaica and Costa Rica achieved the same result away to Mexico, while Honduras recorded a win.
Last Wednesday, the United States suffered their worst result in a Gold Cup since they failed to get out of their group in 1985, which happened four years before Paul Caligiuri's goal that sent the USMNT to Italia '90 and 11 years before the country had a professional league. There's a reasonable case for the Jamaica loss being the worst result in American soccer history -- besides the 1998 loss to Iran, that is -- but that only happened because the captain allegedly slept with the best player's wife and got kicked off the team.
Klinsmann's results are average at best. The play on the field is average at best. That's not failure by any stretch of the imagination, but it would be an even bigger stretch to say that he has the USMNT playing better soccer than Bob Bradley did. His promises about changing the style of the senior national side were entirely empty. "The States played long balls from the midline to the strikers," said Jamaica manager Winfried Schäfer before the Gold Cup final. "Our team plays good football."
None of this is surprising. After a loss to Honduras in the Hex back in 2013, Brian Straus talked to 11 players who had made the national team under Klinsmann, and they were highly critical.
"(Klinsmann) didn't really say how we were going to play. It was a quick turnaround," one U.S. player recalled. "He just basically said, ‘Guys, we know the importance of the game. We know it's going to be a tough game down here. They made it a national holiday. They're going do everything they can.
‘They're going to bite, kick and scratch. They're going to do everything to take you out of your game. But at the end of the day, it's a game. The ball doesn't change. The way we play doesn't change. So just go out there and represent yourselves well.'"
This is more or less exactly what Philipp Lahm -- a pretty credible voice, as the captain of European treble and World Cup winning teams -- had to say about playing under Klinsmann at Bayern Munich.
We practically only practiced fitness under Klinsmann. There was very little technical instruction and the players had to get together independently before the game to discuss how we wanted to play. All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.
Before taking over at Bayern, Klinsmann had some success as Germany's coach, and is largely credited with turning around the German national team program. While he didn't have the same power within the DFB as he has with U.S. Soccer, he still had a serious influence over changes in their youth programs. What he didn't do much of, however, was handle most of the senior national team gameplanning. That was Joachim Löw's job. And with lots of players in their early 20s who came through German youth national teams after Klinsmann instituted his reforms, Löw had a spectacular squad to guide to a 2014 World Cup victory.
There is no Löw on the sidelines for the USMNT. Current assistants Tab Ramos and Andreas Herzog -- who are both youth national team coaches -- are well-respected for their work with youth squads, but are not highly regarded as elite senior football tacticians. It's no slight to those guys that they're not as good as Löw, but Klinsmann needs one of them to be in order to be effective as a senior head coach. Klinsmann just isn't a high-level tactician.
But none of this means that Klinsmann needs to be fired immediately, or that he isn't good for American soccer. He's clearly great for American soccer.
Recruiting is the biggest and most obvious part of this. With a big name, a million-dollar smile and use of fantastic buzzwords like "top-level," he sells people on his vision. Most importantly, he sells it to talented players who have the option to play elsewhere.
It's worth naming the dual nationals he's brought in, because it's really startling to see all of them in a list: John Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, Ventura Alvarado, William Yarbrough, Mikkel Diskerud, Joe Corona, Alfredo Morales, Danny Williams, Julian Green, Matt Miazga, Desevio Payne, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Joel Soñora, Maki Tall, Gedion Zelalem. Some of these players might have committed for the United States no matter who the coach was, but a lot of them wouldn't have if Klinsmann wasn't the guy pitching them on the program.
Klinsmann also knows a lot about how to set up a team in ways that go beyond squad selection and in-game strategy. Here's what SB Nation's Bill Connelly was told by the folks in charge of Bayern Munich.
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.
He might not be much of a tactician, but Klinsmann has a lot of knowledge that's important to developing a program. And that's true in the youth ranks, as well.
Christian Pulisic is one of the U-17s Klinsmann has taken a big interest in -- Juergen Schwarz/Getty Images
Last September, Jorge Arangure Jr. published an article at Vice criticizing Klinsmann for his lack of results in reforming youth national teams. At the time, it was a fair and balanced criticism. The youth national teams just weren't getting results.
But at this summer's Under-20 World Cup, we started to see progress in the areas mentioned in that article by Arangure, Top Drawer Soccer's Will Parchman and U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe. The team didn't just get to the quarterfinal and push the eventual winners to penalties, but did it playing pretty soccer, building from the back, in the 4-3-3 formation Klinsmann has talked about in the past.
The squad makeup was encouraging as well. Of the 21 players on the squad, 10 of them are currently based in the United States and Canada. Six more players spent most of their youth in the American academy system before moving abroad in their late teens. The other five players are almost entirely foreign-developed. Klinsmann is supplementing the player pool with dual-national recruits, but at the same time, there are more good American-developed teenagers than there have ever been before. He should get some credit for that.
Klinsmann is having an influence at younger levels than that, too. He shows his face at Under-17 camps on a regular basis and communicates with those coaches directly, as well as the top players on those teams. He might have oversold his ability to institute sweeping reforms to the youth development system, but he clearly cares more about creating a true under-17-to-senior pipeline than his predecessors. It's benefited Rubio Rubin and Emerson Hyndman already. It should benefit Bradford Jamieson IV and Erik Palmer-Brown in the near future. It wouldn't be surprising if Under-17 stars Haji Wright and Christian Pulisic turned out better than all of them.
As a technical director -- the man setting the direction for youth development, creating a uniform system across all national teams and establishing a pipeline that carries players from the Under-17s to the senior squad -- Klinsmann is clearly doing excellent work. What if he had more time to do it?
Parchman brought up this point in a great piece about Klinsmann's criticism of his players' fitness and the league system that he believes led to them being unfit. It was just the latest in a series of signs that Klinsmann was unable to translate his vision to positive outcomes for the senior national team, and Parchman's conclusion was that Klinsmann has way too much on his plate.
Klinsmann is weighted by the heavy burden of both coaching a national team and setting its future agenda as its technical director. This is very literally an impossible task in a country like the U.S. The requirements of a TD here are so comically immense that to do them well requires the full attention of a man unencumbered by sideline duty.
Senior national team head coach and technical director is too big of a job for one person. Klinsmann is nothing special at the former. He should be given time to excel at the latter.
If Klinsmann were to become a full-time technical director and aid Gulati in hiring a new head coach, it would be pretty easy to spin the turn as a positive, because it would be a positive. There's a ton of work to be done in reforming the Development Academy system while implementing a cohesive style among the youth national teams. It's more important to the future of the U.S. national team than who the senior head coach is at present.
Klinsmann obviously gets paid a great deal of money, which is almost certainly his primary reason for doing this job, but his secondary reason is that he wants to leave a legacy. He thinks he's the man who can make the United States into a soccer superpower and that it's his mission to do so. The best way that he can complete that mission is to focus all of his efforts on the things he's excellent at while dropping the half of his job that he's just okay at.
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This is, sadly, unrealistic. If this was proposed to Klinsmann, he'd see it as a demotion and refuse to accept it. Gulati will almost certainly have to let him carry on with his job as is or pay him a lot of money to go away. October's Confederations Cup playoff would need to be an unmitigated embarrassment for him to pull the trigger and fire Klinsmann.
Because of this, the next three years will be equally frustrating and encouraging for American soccer. Klinsmann's teams will make elementary strategic mistakes and throw away games that they have no business losing. His preaching about establishing a style and playing at a higher level will never lead to results on the pitch for the USMNT. But the team that goes to Russia 2018 will be the most talented one the country has ever fielded, the system stocking that team will be healthy, and it will be Jurgen Klinsmann's doing.
Is enduring three years of a poorly coached USMNT worth the good that comes along with having Klinsmann as technical director?
Yes. It's totally worth it.