The U.S. coveted Klinsmann for many years
Juergen Klinsmann’s hiring as coach of the United States men’s soccer team brought to an end an extraordinary five-year game of cat-and-mouse.
Ever since Klinsmann led Germany to the semifinal of the 2006 World Cup and then left that role with the national team of his homeland, he has been the coach most American fans wanted to lead the USA.
When U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati started the chase five years ago, entering into negotiations with Klinsmann before the former World Cup winner walked away from the table, the soccer public came along for the ride – first daring to believe that a coach with international pedigree would sign on, then feeling the emotional bite of his refusal to accept the position.
Now American soccer has finally got what it wanted, and the real work begins. For now, Klinsmann is no longer that mystical figure whose name was associated with thoughts of what might have been. Now he is the man with the keys to the national team and its future success.
Now his reputation, and that of Gulati, is on the line. The wait is over but the process has just begun.
While there is no doubt that Klinsmann is a high-caliber choice to replace Bob Bradley, who was fired Thursday after never quite securing the breakthrough results that would have prolonged his tenure, this appointment has its risks .
Klinsmann takes his coaching seriously: Following his illustrious playing career he studied the tactics and techniques of numerous leading coaches and honed his own style. Yet while his achievement with Germany – he took a young and underrated team and marched it into the last four on home soil in 2006 – was impressive, many observers are unconvinced of his credentials.
In Germany, much of the credit for that 2006 team is now afforded to current coach Joachim Loew, who was Klinsmann’s assistant and in some eyes the mastermind behind the operation.
[Related: Gold Cup loss doomed Bob Bradley]
Once a deal could not be reached with the USA at the end of 2006, primarily because the federation was loath to hand Klinsmann license to overhaul the entire youth development system, other opportunities came his way.
In the intervening years only one took his fancy, and it ended in disaster. Klinsmann took charge of German Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich for the 2008-’09 season but was ousted before the end of a disappointing campaign following a series of philosophical clashes with the club’s hierarchy.
Criticism was plentiful – and harsh. It was suggested that the Bayern players did not respond to him and the board of directors certainly came to detest him. Given time, Klinsmann may have been able to turn things around, but a player move he hoped would elevate Bayern’s position came to be the one used as a sign of his unsuitability for the role.
He brought in Landon Donovan on loan from the L.A. Galaxy, believing the American forward could add life and variety to the squad. Instead, Donovan’s acquisition and subsequent struggles were used as a stick to beat up Klinsmann’s reputation.
In his new position with the USA, a big task awaits for Klinsmann. Those fans who blasted Bradley for his supposed failures at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa may feel justified, but it is worth questioning whether that was really a team that belonged in the last eight, and whether the outcome would have been so different with Klinsmann at the helm.
The first game for Klinsmann will be a friendly against Mexico on Aug. 10 and the first indication of whether he can push a stagnating team forward. Transition periods between World Cups are not easy, and he will need to look at a lot of players and find the right fit.
If he expects the American players to have the same attributes as the supremely technical German squad he used to work with, he is in for a rude awakening.
For Klinsmann, this is perhaps the biggest challenge of his career. For U.S. Soccer, it may soon find out if all its dreams are about to come true … or that it should have been more careful about what it wished for.
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