U.S. Soccer must move on from Jurgen Klinsmann era

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The Klinsmann experiment is no longer working. (Reuters)
The Klinsmann experiment is no longer working. (Reuters)

 

Jurgen Klinsmann was supposed to make the United States men’s national team better.

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Jurgen Klinsmann has not made the United States men’s national team better. After half a decade of collecting a paycheck at least three times as large as that of his predecessor, he has, at best, allowed the team to stagnate. Read the circumstances, performances and results more cynically – or honestly, depending on where you stand on this – and Klinsmann has made the USA worse.

[ Costa Rica-USA: U.S. humiliated in 4-0 loss | Goalkeeper mess | Match tracker ]

Since his succession of Bob Bradley in 2011, who was ousted when the German finally agreed to take over the team after five years of pursuit by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, Klinsmann has posted mostly passable results in major tournaments. The off-year 2013 Gold Cup was won. Qualification for the 2014 World Cup was secured comfortably, in spite of wobbles early on in the two final rounds.

At the 2014 World Cup, the USA was badly outplayed in three of four games but somehow took a comically superior Belgian side to extra time in the round of 16, courtesy of goalkeeper Tim Howard’s World Cup record-setting 16 saves. The 2015 Gold Cup was a fiasco which ended in an upset by Jamaica in the semifinals, the worst U.S. result in nine editions of the tournament. The 2016 Copa America Centenario released considerable pressure on Klinsmann after a particularly dire run of games. In a spasm of competence, an emphatic victory over Costa Rica and narrow wins over Paraguay and Ecuador salvaged a spot in the semifinals, where Lionel Messi and Argentina ran roughshod over the Yanks in a 4-0 walkover.

The fourth round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, when the Americans first entered the fray, was ponderous, with a 1-1-1 start, before the last three games were won. And now, the final hexagonal round – a six-team, double round-robin that will send three teams directly to Russia and a fourth to an intercontinental playoff – has begun in such disastrous fashion as to imperil an eighth consecutive World Cup berth for a country that has grown accustomed to being at soccer’s big dance.

Friday’s 2-1 loss to Mexico in Ohio was disappointing but understandable, to an extent, given El Tri’s innate superior talent. Tuesday’s 4-0 dismantling by Costa Rica, however, represented a new rock-bottom low in the Klinsmann administration.

“A very, very bitter moment for us – there’s no doubt about it,” he spoke solemnly following the game. “We didn’t imagine going into the hexagonal with two defeats, right in the beginning. This is definitely a moment to reflect what happened in the last 10 days.”

Yes, let’s talk about what happened in the last 10 days.

There’s probably some set of excuses, mitigating circumstances, big-picture perspectives and rationalizations that can be coaxed from the debris of this hexagonal round thus far. And maybe that package of glass-half-full assessments would combine to cast this all in a light that isn’t entirely damning.

Let’s give it a try.

The Mexico game was lost on a single, very late moment – a header by a 37-year-old Rafa Marquez that was of considerable brilliance, even though he was abandoned by his marker. And there’s no great shame in losing to El Tri – not even at home, as they were probably due for a win in Columbus after so many games went the Americans’ way. Playing in Costa Rica is super hard, as evidenced by the USA’s 0-9-2 all-time record there. Games get away from you sometimes, when a team collectively has a horrid day at the office, like on Tuesday.

Klinsmann didn’t have any answers in Costa Rica. (AP Photo)
Klinsmann didn’t have any answers in Costa Rica. (AP Photo)

Certainly, the two Mexico games and the away tie in Costa Rica are the three hardest matches the U.S. will play out of its 10 games in the Hex. And it got two of them out of the way early. Indeed, so forgiving is CONCACAF that a decent haul of points against Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago will likely set things right.

But when you take off the blinders, the trends are obvious. And so is the sinking trajectory of a team that has not only failed to locate the next level, but also has lost its identity and what made it competitive in the first place. Qualifying for the World Cup from the easiest region in global soccer would paper over the cracks, which are more like canyons at this point.

Because a candid assessment of the manner in which the losses came about yields a rather unsightly picture.

Klinsmann’s tactical nincompoopery ruined the first half of the Mexico game. His incomprehensible and untested 3-5-2 formation – or 3-4-3, or whatever – gifted his counterpart Juan Carlos Osorio an opportunity that the tactician knew just how to exploit. By the time Klinsmann reverted to the 4-4-2 he probably never should have strayed from, only the woodwork limited what could have been a three-goal deficit to a 1-0 score. That the U.S. rebounded in the second half was a small grace for Klinsmann, before his team lost anyway.

In San Jose, then, it wasn’t the gaudy score that stuck in the eye so much as the total lack of cohesion, confidence and, most grievously, commitment demonstrated by his team. Even in its 4-4-2, or something that looked like it, the setup was irreparably borked from the very start. Towards the end, the Americans seemed to have quit on the game and on their coach. And for all the shortcomings this plucky national team has revealed in two and a half decades on the global stage, that has hardly ever been witnessed before. If at all.

After the Mexico game, captain Michael Bradley – whose picture appears next to the “Model Professional” entry in the dictionary – suggested between the lines that something was amiss, when he spoke of how “clear ideas” were necessary in the tactics but absent in Klinsmann’s ploy.

This is a deeper crisis than the Gold Cup flameout. That was a bad run, punctuated by an upset on a pair of flukey goals. This is a deeper crisis than when a deeply-reported and well-sourced Sporting News article revealed the depth of the skepticism from the players towards Klinsmann at the start of the last hexagonal round in early 2013.

Because this time around, there is no apparent path to improvement under Klinsmann. He said he was glad to start the hex with the games his team was assigned, getting them out of the way early. He assured us a result would finally be had in Costa Rica. But the collateral damage done to his credibility even without those declarations could see to it that he won’t get to the remainder of the qualifiers.

It probably should mean that he won’t get to them.

Klinsmann himself, of course, believes that he remains the man for the job.


 

And while Gulati had declared that he expected Klinsmann to remain his coach throughout the cycle prior to the Mexico match, just minutes after the Costa Rica loss rumors started to swirl that the famously slow-triggered president was lining up a potential successor for Klinsmann.



 

Klinsmann, for perhaps the first time in his U.S. tenure, took some responsibility, deviating from his long-standing policy of finding some players or a referee to blame.


 

He conceded that this loss was the worst in his time with the U.S. national team, worse than any of the two dozen others he has suffered.

It was.

Because, in truth, Costa Rica isn’t even all that good. This team was not on a par with the spirited bunch that shocked the world with its run to the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals, although the personnel was largely the same. This was a team that was handed a smorgasbord of goal-scoring opportunities by the defensive malpractice of a totally shaken opponent and then duly scored some goals.

It’s hard to see the upside in the Klinsmann project just now. While he has done some important work in shoving the youth game along in his secondary role as technical director, his senior team revolution in his actual job hasn’t come off at all. The high-pressing, up-tempo game is very rarely seen out on the field. For all the promises of “proactive” soccer, we’ve seen very little of it. The hallmarks of the wins are still athleticism and tenacity, as they always were, but even those bedrock traits are steadily eroding.

All of the innovation and reform for its own sake have produced little by way of tangible results. Aside from the once-a-year, 15-minute flash of good soccer, the Klinsmann seasons have been marked by footballing drudgery. Most of the time, the USA isn’t even very fun to watch anymore – as underscored by the starkly dwindling attendance figures for friendlies on American soil.

Even Klinsmann’s most basic tactics don’t work. His lineups leave huge holes; after years of rotating defenders, his backline is ramshackle; he remains utterly reliant on set pieces for goals; and his players seem to have begun tuning him out – or worse.

Will he qualify the Americans for Russia 2018 if he’s allowed to stay on? Quite possibly. The odds are probably better than 50-50. But to what end? To grind through another tournament in hopes of eking out a third consecutive place in the round of 16, before going home in extra time?

This is not a team that has the makings of an outfit that might do damage at the next World Cup. Klinsmann himself set the semifinals as his target in Russia, and after all these years of investment, the U.S. is overdue to at least repeat its modern high-water mark of the quarterfinals it reached in 2002. But at present, with 19 months until that tournament, all of that looks pretty hopeless.

The United States men’s national team is in shambles. The man in charge of it has provided no evidence at all that he will make things better. With a 4½-month break until qualifying resumes with 24 more points on offer, now is as good a time as any to give up on the Klinsmann experiment.

It was a noble idea. The aspiration of it was laudable.

But it hasn’t worked. So it’s time to move on. To try something else.

To try someone else.


Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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