Who knows what sealed Jurgen Klinsmann’s exit. There’s no shortage of final nails.
The apathetic bludgeoning in Costa Rica could have done it. Then Klinsmann opened his mouth again and offered another possibility. Maybe the loss to Mexico, the latest in a long line of tactical blunders that this time resulted in the United States’ first World Cup qualifying loss on home soil in 15 years, is what really got U.S. Soccer’s blood boiling.
Maybe it was all of it. In any event, when president Sunil Gulati announced the dismissal of Klinsmann on Monday, it represented a few rays of sunshine breaking through the cloudiness that has pervaded U.S. Soccer for the better part of two years.
In fact, things have gotten so dark it’s a wonder why Klinsmann was ever viewed as the right man for the job in the first place.
Part of that is understanding what “the job” entailed back in 2011. By that point, the U.S. had grown into a continental power under the admirable auspices of former managers Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. Tactically pragmatic and deft at the ever-elusive quality of man management, both Arena and Bradley were also appealing and relatable to their player pools. They too were American, they too shaped the MLS as the MLS shaped them, and they too were eager to announce the USA’s arrival as a serious soccer nation.
The next step, then, seemed clear. Instead of merely earning regular participation in the World Cup, U.S. Soccer wanted to be among the favorites, to build a program that took the game to the other nations, no matter how deep the disparity in tradition or success.
Klinsmann knew what that looked like. He came from one of those very nations. He had won the World Cup with (then West) Germany. He’d captained Germany to a European championship. He’d played in the Bundesliga, Serie A and the Premier League.
There was more. He was not American, but he was married to an American model and had lived in Southern California since early in the century. He had the look and charisma of a successful man and carried himself that way.
Even with all that considered, hiring Klinsmann would have been risky had he not spent a single second on the touchlines coaching. But in fact, his work with Germany from 2004 to 2006 represented the kind of revamp U.S. Soccer was looking for.
So Gulati made Klinsmann the first real blockbuster signing in American history, where he promised much in the same vein.
With Germany, he introduced an influx of young talent after the group stage flameout at Euro 2004. While this action lit a fire under the aging stars more than it signaled an overhaul of the roster, the wheels were clearly churning in the right direction. Germany finished third at the 2006 World Cup and only lost to eventual champion Italy in the semifinals on goals in the 119th and 120th minutes.
Many credit Klinsmann for laying the groundwork that led to Germany’s triumph at the 2014 World Cup. It’s also easy to catch glimpses of what led to his USMNT downfall while he did it. Klinsmann didn’t hesitate to bench stars or leave them out of squad selections entirely. He went to battle with the media on a variety of matters. He pledged a commitment to development and meritocracy that rattled the status quo.
Except he did all that while adding a spirited attacking component to Germany’s system of possession and discipline. It wasn’t an altogether dissimilar challenge from the one Klinsmann faced with the Americans, who had no choice but to make up for talent gaps with work rate and smart play.
The problem was that Klinsmann’s revolution never took hold. He promised a more attacking style, but the only attacking he really did was against the media and fans. His teams, while historically successful in some regards, were historically inept in others, and they resembled the counterattack-heavy outfits of the past instead of a bold new direction for U.S. Soccer. The lineups were inconsistent, as were the results, and while he broadened the USMNT talent pool with foreign-born players and young talents, just how much those players were improving under his watch as coach and technical director became a serious question.
It wasn’t the first time Klinsmann has failed in his reforms, either. A disastrous one-season spell in 2008-09 at Bayern Munich (which, to be fair, didn’t give him much support) ended with Klinsmann fiddling with formations and leaning heavily on certain players. Sound familiar?
It does now, and it contributed to his sacking on Monday. The man who emblematized the change U.S. Soccer sought left the program with a revertive move that, quite tellingly, probably ensures the best chance of reaching the 2018 World Cup and actually doing some damage there.
All this isn’t to say hiring Jurgen Klinsmann was the wrong move. It made sense at the time, and it still makes a ton of sense given the goals and circumstances. Klinsmann’s tenure ending the way it did should not deter U.S. Soccer from searching abroad for future managers and coaches.
It’s just distressing that it all devolved so much, so fast, and that the tea leaves of Klinsmann’s past sat themselves at the bottom of the well of good faith that has long since dried.