By Zach Bigalke, Cedrick Heraux, and Patrick Salkeld
Hired in July 2011, fired in November 2016; Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) divides US soccer fans. It also divides our contributors.
Klinsmann came to the US after a prominent career as a player and a coach. As a player he won the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship with Germany.[i] He won a league title with Bayern Munich and won the UEFA cup with Bayern Munich and with Italian team Inter Milan. He was runner-up in the Ballon d’Or in 1995. As a coach, he took Germany to third place in their home World Cup in 2006 and then had a disappointing spell in charge of Bayern Munich.[ii]
Hired as head coach of the USMNT in 2011, his team had an inauspicious start that saw them lose 4 of their first 6 games. Klinsmann would soon steady the ship and led The Yanks to their first ever victory in the Estadio Azteca against arch rival Mexico, his team won the 2013 Gold Cup and qualified with ease for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. At soccer’s premier event the USMNT surprised much of the world by qualifying from the “Group of Death” and taking a very talented Belgian team to extra time in the round of 16. 2015 saw a disappointing 4th place finish in the Gold Cup followed by a surprising (and much more celebrated) 4th place at the 2016 Copa América Centenario which was held in the US. Early setbacks in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, a draw with Trinidad and Tobago and a loss against Guatemala, were overcome but back to back defeats against Mexico and Costa Rica in the final round of World Cup qualifying (known as the Hex) proved to be Klinsmann’s downfall as he was fired by US soccer on November 21, 2016.
Some of our regular contributors analyze Klinsmann’s tenure as coach of the USMNT, and discuss his legacy on and off the field.
Let’s start with the obvious question. Was US soccer right to fire Jürgen Klinsmann?
There is no doubt that firing Klinsmann was the right thing to do. Looking back across the last 5 USMNT managers, his results indicate that, for all the bluster surrounding his hire, he is no better than (and in some ways worse than) Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena. Given 5 years to make significant changes across the landscape of US soccer, he produced a similar win percentage with similar goals for and goals against averages of his 2 predecessors. If the point of hiring Klinsmann was to take the USMNT to the next level, it is clear that we never got there. Truthfully, losing to Panama in the 2015 Gold Cup 3rd Place Playoff or to Mexico in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup final most likely would have been enough to get most managers fired. Sunil Gulati clearly didn’t want to fire his prized recruit, but after the last 2 losses he had no other choice.
The United States knew exactly what it was getting when it hired Klinsmann to manage the USMNT and to oversee player development at all levels. Honestly, the best-case scenario was for Klinsmann to find his own American version of Joachim Löw to oversee tactics with the senior team while the German expatriate scoured the world for dual-national talent. In his previous stops as a manager, there has been plenty of evidence put forth by his former players that points to Klinsmann being overmatched as a tactician. He certainly brought in some valuable talent to the national team, but lower levels of development have seemed stunted at the same time. The fact that the Americans were absent from the Olympic men’s competition last summer is but one indictment of Klinsmann as the man to overhaul the system in the United States.
US Soccer hired Klinsmann with the intention of overhauling soccer in the United States, but it failed to equip him with the necessary tools or opportunities. He saw the problems in American soccer culture and revealed them to the public, and yet US Soccer appeared reluctant to listen. As a result, he looked to Germany to accentuate the player pool for the USMNT because he understood its soccer culture better and knew the ins and outs. Yet, US Soccer indeed needed to fire Klinsmann. He failed to achieve the desired results, operated the USMNT poorly in regards to tactics, and lacked a certain degree of cooperation with US Soccer. Had Klinsmann found an assistant to handle tactics, Klinsmann might still be the head coach.
I do think US Soccer fired him at the right time; however, as I tweeted when US Soccer made Klinsmann’s departure official and will discuss in a future article, the federation chose an opportune time to announce it just as 60 Minutes interviewed the USWNT, HBO’s special about Chuck Blazer, and the Deloitte Study on Promotion and Relegation in the United States. It diverted attention from these topics by announcing it on Monday, but Klinsmann needed to go before the next round of matches.
What is your defining memory of Jürgen Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT team head coach?
There are 2 moments that stick out to me. I would say that the 0-1 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup group stage was the match that made me a true believer in the possibilities of a long Klinsmann tenure leading the USMNT to a WC semi-final or final. Although Germany only needed a draw to advance, they came out with a strong lineup in order to finish first in the group with a win. The fact that the USMNT was able to play very well against such an incredibly strong side (and one that would go on to win the 2014 WC) was heartening for the future.
In contrast, being played off the pitch in the 0-4 loss to Brazil in the 2015 Copa Centanario semi-final demonstrated to me just how far we still had left to go in order to compete at a continuously high level. With a few exceptions (notably Chris Wondolowski and Gyasi Zardes), Klinsmann put out a strong side in terms of personnel (although he was limited by suspensions to some starters) but was completely outmatched with respect to tactics. The greatest criticism of Klinsmann has always been that he is a poor tactician who expects his players to make up for any deficiencies in his decision-making. This match laid bare just how difficult that is to do when competing against the world’s best.
For me, the defining moment of Klinsmann’s tenure as USMNT head coach came before the 2014 World Cup. Six months before the tournament, Klinsmann was frank and forthright in stating, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.” He took a lot of heat for the statement, but I was actually impressed with his ability to be honest with the American public. Then he left Landon Donovan off his final 23-man roster for the World Cup, sparking even more vitriol. I personally felt it was the right decision, given Donovan’s dip in form and the motivation to get younger players onto the roster, but the mere fact that he was willing to take all this heat seemed at the time to bode well for his ability to release the pressure from his team. Then, of course, he started putting teams on the field, and the biggest evolution was in the fact that the players seemed less familiar with their formational and tactical responsibilities than they did under Bradley or Arena.
Klinsmann’s decision to drop Landon Donovan will always last in my memory. As an LA Galaxy fan but also a huge fan of Donovan, it disappointed me to see him excluded and to this day, I continue to wonder if Donovan might have scored the goal Chris Wondolowski notably missed in the 2014 World Cup. Nonetheless, Donovan’s absence opened up a spot for new players and a new era, even if nothing truly resulted from it to this point. Yet, it offered Julian Green the opportunity to score that goal against Belgium. More importance placed on youth will drastically improve the USMNT.
Jürgen Klinsmann was often vocal with regard to his opinion of soccer culture in the US, in particular he was not afraid to voice his opinion regarding issues that he felt needed changing. What is Klinsmann’s legacy to US soccer off the field?
Despite not always using it appropriately, Klinsmann knew how to spot talent. His efforts in recruitment have set the stage for a system in which the USMNT has a much broader player pool. Importantly, going forward that has to mean exploring beyond dual-nationals (the majority of whom were German-Americans, under Klinsmann) and finding hidden gems within the incredibly confusing US pyramid. His desire for more structure and consistency within that pyramid (e.g. changing the MLS season schedule; changing college to FIFA rules) makes a lot of sense and can have extensive benefits, but there must be cooperation from the bottom up.
What is perhaps most important is that the next USMNT manager (Bruce Arena v2.0?)[iii] must be a better man-manager than Klinsmann was. The latter had clearly lost the team by the 0-4 loss to Costa Rica on November 15th, and was it due to his penchant for throwing his own players under the bus. Landon Donovan, Mix Diskerud, Darlington Nagbe, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, and now John Brooks have all been publicly denigrated or dismissed in a show of pettiness from Klinsmann, and it finally caught up to him.
Klinsmann certainly was outspoken about the relative quality of MLS to other international leagues, but at the same time that also led him to turn away from legitimate talent playing domestically. His legacy will be one of missed opportunities, given the fact that for all his bloviating about the faults of the system he never really sought to work with US Soccer to address those deficiencies. Naturally the end goal should be for American players to play in the best leagues against the best competition, so it isn’t as though Klinsmann was saying anything revolutionary in trying to steer players that direction. But by so blatantly alienating MLS and ignoring its talent, he limited the opportunity to dig deeper into the domestic system to find talent. As someone who was tasked with player development all along the pipeline, I still find this to be a far bigger stain on his legacy than the losses that piled up with the USMNT. Say what you will about institutional support, but the buck ultimately stops with Klinsmann.
Klinsmann’s legacy will be his failure to overhaul the American system. He decided to focus primarily on youth overseas in Europe, such as Bobby Wood, Julian Green, and Christian Pulisic, instead of working harder to encourage youth development in the United States. I see it as the main reason for the lack of success in the World Cup. While I think MLS, NASL, and USL must still improve tremendously to reach the same level of quality as other leagues, some players do exist in the United States that deserve an opportunity with the USMNT. The national team head coach, regardless of the individual and the country, must look into the depths of the domestic soccer leagues, even NASL and USL like when Klinsmann picked Miguel Ibarra, to find candidates for international duty.
What about Jürgen Klinsmann himself, where does he go now?
Despite being serially referred to as a poor tactician, Klinsmann is sure to get offers. If Tottenham Hotspur fail to finish in 4th place or better in the EPL this season, I would not be surprised to see them fire Mauricio Pochettino and extend an offer to Klinsmann.
I still think there is a role for Klinsmann in the sport, though at this point it would probably be wisest to take a few years off to rehabilitate his image. He is obviously knowledgeable about the game, and his work in reforming the German national team doesn’t deserve to be glossed over when assessing what he can offer. It would shock me to see a big club or a major national team give him another chance as the manager of a team, but I could see him moving more toward a player development role with a club’s academy or with another national team. The question is whether he even wants to continue onward at this point, given that he is 52 and would have to relocate to take a new position.
Since Klinsmann sold his house in Newport Beach, California, I see him relocating back to Germany. His expertise remains in player development, so I could see him working for a club or federation as a scout; however, I echo Zach’s statement about Klinsmann needing to rehabilitate his image. Before he manages another team, he must reexamine his coaching style to see what worked and what failed him.
How do you think this will affect the USMNT going forward, both at the 2018 World Cup (should they qualify) and beyond?
This was clearly the right timing, as Bruce Arena now has quite a bit of time before the USMNT’s next qualifying match. Considering that he is the most successful USMNT manager of all-time, in the short-term I expect that we will qualify for the 2018 World Cup and then lose our Round of 16 match to a vastly superior team. However, I do not think that Arena represents a long-term solution. After the 2018 WC, I would expect the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) to look to hire a much younger, “up and coming” manager with significant MLS experience. I have no doubt that there will be some hesitance to hire an international manager with no experience within the US pyramid. Tapping into our youth coaching system, particularly if we have gotten better at identifying young talented players who have developed while playing within the US pyramid, could be a viable and attractive option. Tab Ramos anyone?
I have to agree that there was no better time to can Klinsmann than at this point of the Hexagonal, with 4 months to adjust through a transition period prior to the next CONCACAF qualifier. Even with the transition period, the USMNT might not get its first win in this final round of qualifying until they host Trinidad & Tobago in June. Given the improvement of other CONCACAF sides, the best that the Americans might be able to hope for is reaching the playoff against the 5th placed team in Asian qualifying. Naming Bruce Arena as the new manager feels rooted more in nostalgia than logic, and reaching Russia in 2018 will require him to lean heavily on the very MLS talent that Klinsmann avoided. He provides anything but the “fresh approach” that Sunil Gulati wanted when he let Arena’s contract expire after the 2006 World Cup, and this is merely a scramble to try to reach the next World Cup. I have a feeling it will fall short, and US Soccer will finally have to reflect more critically on where it still needs to improve.
I agree wholeheartedly with Zach and Cedrick. These next 2 years will reveal whether or not Klinsmann instilled deep changes within the USMNT. If Bruce Arena helps catapult the USMNT to the 2018 World Cup, I still think US Soccer will replace him after the tournament. Returning to a familiar coach should only be a short-term fix for US Soccer; in fact, I see it as a return to the starting point in which Klinsmann entered, and as Cedrick stated earlier, USMNT fared not much better under Klinsmann than previously under Arena or Bradley. In his tenure with the LA Galaxy, Arena focused more on veteran experience than offering youths opportunities on the field in contrast to Óscar Pareja, head coach of FC Dallas who implemented a new direction for the team.
The USMNT must focus on more youth development and bringing in fresh players to find success in the future. If the USMNT fails to reach Russia or performs poorly, US Soccer must reexamine every single aspect regarding the culture of soccer in the United States, the organization of the American soccer pyramid, the season schedule, and even promotion and relegation. Too much about American soccer is in flux currently. US Soccer might see that for all of Klinsmann’s faults on and off the field, some of his criticisms of American soccer prove correct. I do like the idea of hiring Tab Ramos as the USMNT coach after 2018 though, Cedrick.
Zachary R. Bigalke is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Oregon focusing on the impact of immigration and industrialization on the early development of various forms of football in the Americas. He is a regular contributor to the college football website Saturday Blitz, and can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @zbigalke.
Cedrick G. Heraux is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology at Adrian College. His research focuses on the sociology of sport, with a particular emphasis on the moral panic over hooliganism in European football (soccer).
Patrick Salkeld is a M.A. Candidate at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @patsalkeld.
[i] The 1990 World Cup victory was for West Germany, the 1996 triumph was the first trophy for a unified German team.
[ii] The Ballon d’Or is widely considered to be the leading award for individual players in world soccer.
[iii] Cedrick completed his piece before Bruce Arena, to the surprise of no one, was announced as the next head coach of the USMNT.