Bruce Arena coached his first competitive match of his second spell as United States men’s national team coach on Friday night, and it went as well as it possibly could have. The USMNT scored just five minutes into its match against Honduras and never looked back, winning 6-0.
This stands in stark contrast to the Americans’ last two competitive games, in which they were terrible. Mexico handed the USMNT a 2-1 defeat in Columbus, which Klinsmann’s side followed up with an embarrassing 4-0 defeat away to Costa Rica.
Piling on Klinsmann is the very definition of beating a dead horse. He was fired a long time ago, and USMNT fans have plenty to celebrate after Friday night’s game without having to pile on Klinsmann. And honestly, Jurgen seems like a nice man and has handled himself with complete class and dignity since getting fired. He even tweeted out support for his old team before and after the Honduras match:
GOOD LUCK tonight vs Honduras and get the 3 points !!! GO USA !!! @AmericanOutlaws— Jürgen Klinsmann (@J_Klinsmann) March 24, 2017
6:0! Awesome result and fantastic to see @clint_dempsey being back healthy and scoring again! Way to go!— Jürgen Klinsmann (@J_Klinsmann) March 25, 2017
So I promise that Klinsmann will be left alone after this post. But given the nature of the USMNT’s result on Friday, that dead horse is still in the room, stinking the place up, and everyone notices. Let us acknowledge it, get rid of it, and then move on.
Judging motivation or lack thereof on the body language of people you don’t have day-to-day interactions with is hard. But it was clear that the USMNT stopped playing its hardest at some point during the Costa Rica match, and that the team was clearly playing its hardest from the opening whistle of the Honduras match. These things are undeniable.
So why did that happen? Well...
I'd kinda forgotten what a coherent team with a game plan looks like.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) March 25, 2017
... playing for a bad tactician for five years is exhausting. The players figured out he didn’t know what he was doing in 2013, then had to keep playing for him for three more years. At some point, you can’t talk yourself into giving your all for an incompetent manager anymore, especially when his incompetence is making your job harder. It’s deflating. The American players should not be criticized for quitting on Klinsmann, but instead praised for continuing to play their hardest for him even after figuring out that he was a snake oil salesman.
It’s also hard to play for a manager who says one thing then does the other. For instance, Klinsmann regularly talked about the lack of technically sound players in the American player pool and insinuated that he didn’t have the talent to play a pretty passing style. (Trashing your own players is another bad motivational tactic.) But there were guys who could pass hidden in plain sight, and Klinsmann ignored them.
Klinsmann refused to give Darlington Nagbe a sustained run of games, and he wouldn’t give Jorge Villafaña a chance at all. Here’s what the team’s left flank looked like in the first half of the Honduras match under boring, long ball, classic 4-4-2 Coach Arena:
Starting Nagbe and Villafaña was not a stroke of genius from Arena. It’s something that fans and media — laypeople without top level managerial experience — have been begging Klinsmann to try for two years.
Ultimately, Arena kept it pretty simple on Friday night. His team selection was smart, but not anything outrageous. He just selected in-form players then put them in positions they have experience playing in, in a shape that gave the team balance in all areas of the pitch.
An underrated aspect of management is making sure your players don’t think you’re an incompetent jerk. If your players feel like you don’t think they’re good enough and that your tactics don’t make any sense either, you’ve lost a lot before they’ve even stepped on the pitch. It didn’t matter how good Klinsmann’s motivational speeches were in the locker room if players knew he was going to put them in a position to fail tactically and then tell the media they’re crap when the game is over.
The USMNT was more motivated to play for Arena than Klinsmann because the team had confidence that its coach had basic competence and was putting it in a position to succeed. Arena didn’t have to be a genius or a master motivator. He just had to be professional.
And with that, we can put the Jurgen Klinsmann era behind us and look forward to the future.