Jurgen Klinsmann toppled the Old Regime. Can he build something better in its place?
The revolution wasn’t supposed to unfold like this. As Paul Aguilar’s perfectly-struck volley outpaced Brad Guzan’s outstretched hand in the 118th minute of the much-hyped CONCACAF Cup, the seemingly improbable reality that the U.S. would fail to qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup became an ugly truth. Coupled with a shocking 4th place finish in this summer’s Gold Cup, the 3-2 defeat in Pasadena took Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as manager of the U.S. men’s national team to its lowest nadir yet. After the game, cries for Klinsmann’s head echoed loudly from a chorus of counter-revolutionaries, critics only satisfied by the sight of blood.
This was not the future anyone envisioned in 2011 when Klinsmann took command of a U.S. team on the verge of crossing the threshold from very good to truly great. Under American stewardship, the team had become the giant of CONCACAF, a regular fixture at the World Cup, and a constant threat to unseat the powerful from their lofty perches.
It was assumed that Klinsmann, carrying unimpeachable international pedigree, would be the right lever to push the team to the proverbial “next level,” transforming the United States from a solid (if unsexy) counterattacking side into a possession-based power. The German would redefine American soccer, harnessing the nation’s growing Latino population and turning its melting pot into footballing gold.
Little of this could be seen from the men in white on Saturday. Having faltered in the Gold Cup with experimental line-ups and a coterie of youngsters, Klinsmann turned to his battle-tested war horses for the one-match playoff against Mexico. Back in the line-up were the likes of Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, DaMarcus Beasley, and Kyle Beckerman. In spite of the personnel changes, the U.S. team looked much like it has over the past year, unable to assert any rhythm or control over the match and drowned in possession.
It was Yankee pluck and a well-timed run from Bobby Wood that kept the U.S. in the game into extra time, but when the final whistle sounded, the better team on the night went home victors. In the Rose Bowl, a jubilant sea of green exploded in euphoria.
Despite the loss, Klinsmann remained convinced of his righteousness. “I’m not here to be liked,” he told reporters after the defeat. “I’m trying to do a good job and I’m privileged to have that role and represent the U.S. Soccer program.”
This is not new. The one constant of Klinsmann’s tenure as manager has been a defiant belief in his own virtue, the lonesome seer able to make the difficult yet necessary decisions others could never fathom. In 2014, despite a cavalcade of criticism, Klinsmann cut Landon Donovan from the World Cup squad, the most controversial decision of his tenure.
In addition, he’s heavily recruited a cadre of dual-nationals, the Cold War’s final gift to American soccer, to mixed impact. He’s called up a college kid and a player from the the American 2nd division. He’s religiously urged his players to get out of their “comfort zones,” prodding them to leave the comfy climes of MLS for the cutthroat shores of European football, picking fights with MLS in the process.
In short, he’s been U.S. Soccer’s Disrupter-In-Chief, always willing to tinker and to challenge convention, believing that his charge is not only to change how Americans play football but also to change how they think about it, too. This is not to say that prior U.S. coaches didn’t do any of these things (It’s easy to forget that Bob Bradley recruited Jermaine Jones), but Klinsmann’s forceful advocacy for them, his self-promotion as the one who is tearing down the backwards Old Regime, has allowed these decisions to define his reign.
The goals are laudable, but the results have not been. Facing a generational shift in the senior team as stalwarts like DaMarcus Beasley (who already retired once) and Clint Dempsey enter the last phase of their careers, few of Klinsmann’s experiments have turned into national team regulars.
On Saturday night, two of Klinsi’s kids — DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood — spearheaded the 2nd U.S. goal, but it was not enough to overcome the cavalcade of pressure Mexico threw at the United States. The rest of Klinsmann’s experiments were nowhere to be found. Julian Green — who took the place of Landon Donovan on the 2014 World Cup roster — watched from Germany. Also missing in action were one-time hopefuls like Timmy Chandler, Ventura Alvarado, and John Brooks. Granted, some were carrying injuries, but in a game where fresh blood was required, they were not yet ready to contribute, forcing Klinsmann to trot out the last generation of U.S. Soccer talent on a forlorn quest to salvage one final Pyrrhic Victory from 2015.
Beyond player selection, others also question Klinsmann’s tactical decisions, contending that the problem is not the players he puts on the field but instead the way in which he deploys them. His constant positional tinkering (i.e. the failed Jermaine Jones centerback experiment) has not yet unlocked a player’s hidden potential and has, more gravely, prevented the team from developing chemistry and continuity.
Still, despite the resounding din of criticism, it’s clear that Klinsmann has the trust of U.S. Soccer and will remain the coach of the United States barring an unforeseen catastrophe.
So we sit, four years into the Klinsmann revolution — the Old Regime in tatters — and the bright future that he promised in 2011 a fading mirage on the horizon.
For Klinsmann, it’s not that he’s been wrong; it’s that he’s not been right yet. The message remains the same: trust the process. There’s a bevy of young-ish talent in MLS from Sebastian Lletget to Harry Shipp as well veterans like Benny Feilhaber to Darlington Nagbe and Lee Ngyuen who could add attacking flair to the currently listless U.S. team. If Klinsmann wants these young MLS stars to make the jump to Europe, he’s got to cap them first. There’s also a cohort of youngsters coming up the ranks at European clubs like Gedion Zelalem and Emerson Hyndman. Ever the optimist, Klinsmann must have faith that this next generation of talent will finally coalesce into the attacking footballing force he promised four years ago. With both the 2016 Copa America and 2018 World Cup qualifying on the calendar, Klinsmann can’t afford many more misses.
For the naysayers, the great fear is that Klinsmann is a stronger diagnostician than he is a doctor. He may be able to accurately decry the evils that afflict U.S. Soccer, but he is not the man to remedy them. If the latest revolution in U.S. Soccer is to survive, Klinsmann cannot.
Looking ahead to 2016, one hopes that Klinsmann will nurture a new generation of talent, players who can fulfill his vision for positive, attacking football. If not, we’ll be standing on the wrong side of the revolution, a period that that saw much turmoil, turnover, and blood but little progress.