Jurgen Klinsmann did not become a bad coach last week. He was an inept tactical manager with bad ideas at Bayern Munich eight years ago, and he was that repeatedly for the United States men’s national team. When U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati decided to fire Klinsmann in the wake of losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, it was not because Klinsmann is a bad tactician. Gulati has known that for a long time, but decided on multiple occasions that Klinsmann brought enough other skills to the table to negate that problem.
U.S. Soccer also did not start achieving poor results last week. While the Americans had not lost at home to Mexico in World Cup qualifying in 44 years before Friday’s disappointing defeat, they had lost to Mexico on American soil multiple times, in multiple competitions, under multiple managers. The same goes for matches away to Costa Rica. Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley both had their fair share of disappointments against those teams, but made World Cup knockout stages and won Gold Cups anyway.
In his post-match press conference following the Costa Rica loss, Klinsmann used "shit happens" as his explanation for the defeat. As far as explanations for the surface-level results go, it’s not impossible that defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica could genuinely come down to something this simple. Mexico is a very good team and was destined to win a World Cup qualifying match in the United States eventually. Both Bradley’s trip to San Jose and the worse of Arena’s two visits could have easily finished 4-0 with a couple of more unlucky bounces. These losses are not what got Klinsmann fired.
The thing that got Klinsmann canned is that there were signs that he could no longer be trusted to be reasonable. His actions over the past week suggest that he did not consider the potential benefits and consequences of his decisions, and is now acting irrationally. When Gulati sat down with U.S. Soccer board members, coaches, and anyone else he trusts to help him make big choices, he did not attempt to figure out whether or not Klinsmann is a good coach that gets acceptable results. He attempted to figure out whether or not Klinsmann has the judgment to lead, and decided that he does not.
Based on the evidence available to the public, Klinsmann’s judgment has deteriorated significantly. This is evidenced by starting Jermaine Jones in back-to-back games despite him missing three months with a knee injury. Leading into these two World Cup qualifiers, Jones had played just two games since his return, completing neither of them.
That Jones gave the ball away constantly over the course of two matches while also failing to win the ball with physical challenges like he normally does can hardly be blamed on him. Players need more than two run-outs to fully recover from a three-month injury layoff. It was clear from his two average games for the Colorado Rapids that he was still finding his feet, and was not yet the Jermaine Jones who’s dominated MLS and big USMNT games in recent years. Starting him twice was a bad selection more egregious than any tactical error.
But the tactical error against El Tri isn’t just a tactical error either. Klinsmann claimed that the United States’ personnel was a good fit for a 3-5-2 formation, and that’s why he decided to employ it in the Mexico match. But the personnel that he had to work with on Friday is the same as the personnel he had last month, when he had two friendlies to use to prepare for Friday’s big game. It didn’t occur to him to test his theories out in those low-stakes situations, so his team was unprepared to play in that shape against Mexico. To date, Klinsmann had used the formation exactly one time, for 45 minutes in a January camp game against a Chilean C-team.
Despite never seeing the USMNT line up in a 3-5-2, El Tri boss Juan Carlos Osorio was prepared for the possibility. Less than a minute into the game, "Tecatito" Jesus Corona and Osorio relayed what they saw on the pitch to each other, and Mexico quickly adjusted their strategy to counter it. Klinsmann watched his team flail around in a state of utter confusion for 30 minutes before he decided to make an adjustment. It was a fit of poor intuition, followed by a lack of composure and decisiveness from Klinsmann.
Costa Rica was a different animal. Klinsmann reverted to the 4-4-2 formation that the team is familiar with, but they were never in the match. They conceded two big early chances, finally went behind just before halftime, and finished the first half with 65 percent passing accuracy. Once Costa Rica went 2-0 up, everything fell apart, and Klinsmann admitted as much. "After the second goal the players didn't have the fight to get back into the game," he said in his post-match press conference.
Credit: Bill Streicher/USA Today
Writing for Stars and Stripes FC, my colleague Rob Usry captured the overwhelming sentiment felt by fans who watched the match. "I cannot remember a more deflating and disheartening performance in the time I’ve followed this program," he wrote. "Sure, there have been bad performances and poor results, but never have I seen a U.S. Soccer team actually quit playing on the field."
Players quitting on Klinsmann isn’t a new thing, even if they’ve never done it mid-game before. You might recall the 2013 Sporting News story by Brian Straus about players questioning Klinsmann’s coaching methods. Some of the players that Klinsmann had no chance to win over were dropped from the team, while senior leaders rallied the troops to convince them that they needed to give everything they had for the team even if they disagreed with the manager. The result was a solid Hex performance. But Klinsmann does not appear to have learned, and those same senior leaders couldn't be reasonably counted on to motivate their teammates to fight for a coach they don’t believe in for a fifth consecutive year.
And where these things come together, at the convergence of poor judgment and losing the locker room, is the awful performance of John Brooks on Tuesday. Brooks was at least partially responsible for all four Ticos goals and the player most directly responsible for the first and third ones. He was lucky that his other turnovers were bailed out by his defensive mates because Brooks started a half-dozen Costa Rica attacks on his own.
Brooks, notably, was the player that Klinsmann directly blamed for Mexico’s winning goal. "We lost [Marquez] there, simple as that. An individual mistake," Klinsmann said, adding that Brooks was that individual who lost his man. Brooks — a very good Bundesliga starter and the USMNT’s top player at Copa America — proceeded to have one of the worst matches of his life four days later.
Klinsmann also singled out Jones and Michael Bradley after the Mexico defeat, claiming that the reason the back three system the team started with didn’t work is that his central midfielders didn’t win one-on-one battles. Bradley and Jones, who played much better in the final 60 minutes against Mexico, openly disagreed. They were both very poor against Costa Rica.
Maybe you think that Brooks, Bradley, Jones, and other players like them are huge crybabies who need to grow thicker skin. In other footballing cultures, players are criticized much more harshly than this, and are expected to bounce back. That’s a reasonable position to take.
It’s also Klinsmann’s job to manage these players, regardless of their fragile personalities. He’s paid seven figures by U.S. Soccer to get the best out of his players, and he needs to find a way to do that job. If Bradley, Jones, Brooks or anyone else doesn’t perform better when they’re singled out for harsh criticism, Klinsmann should know that by now. He’s worked with them for five years, and should have some grasp on their personalities. But instead of lifting his players up, Klinsmann bashed them with no regard for the potential ramifications.
Klinsmann was not employed for the purpose of saying things that are correct. Whether or not Brooks lost Marquez and was solely responsible for losing the USMNT the game could not be more irrelevant to the conversation about Klinsmann’s fitness for his job. He needed to say the things that would have filled Brooks with confidence and inspired him to play better in the next game, even if he thinks that Brooks needs to grow up and that his temperament is utterly ridiculous. Klinsmann’s job was to manage his players and prepare them to perform, period.
Klinsmann has no management skills. He lets his emotions overshadow logic to the detriment of his subordinates. He cannot be trusted to make sound decisions. If you’re wondering why Gulati sacked Klinsmann now when he decided not to make a change after the 2015 Gold Cup losses to Panama and Jamaica, here’s your answer. It’s unsound judgment, not bad results or tactics, that will got Klinsmann fired.