Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal as head coach of the United States national team in November had an air of inevitability about it. Few international managers continue beyond one World Cup cycle. The former Germany and Tottenham Hotspur striker was in his sixth year with the Stars and Stripes and was one of only seven surviving coaches from the 2014 FIFA World Cup.1
His results with the U.S. were respectable – 55 wins, 16 draws and 27 defeats for a country devoid of world class players. Klinsmann led the Yanks to notable maiden victories in Italy and in Mexico’s Azteca Stadium in 2012 before engineering a record 12-game winning streak the following year. They reached the second round of the 2014 World Cup after emerging from an opening group containing tournament winner Germany, current European champion Portugal and perennial African power Ghana. They would have made the quarterfinal had forward Chris Wondolowski not squandered a last-gasp sitter before Belgium sealed a 2-1 win in extra time.
Klinsmann’s views on Major League Soccer put him at odds with the powerbrokers of the sport in America and left him exposed after a difficult start to the final round of CONCACAF qualifiers for Russia 2018. He had few allies among an American soccer media that found some of his responses to be condescending, while a bizarre press conference held by MLS commissioner Don Garber in October 2014 increased the likelihood of Klinsmann’s exit.
“He needs to think very, very hard about how he manages himself publicly and how he motivates players playing in our league,” was Garber’s response to Klinsmann’s concerns over Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley’s form following their respective returns to MLS from Tottenham and Roma.
“We need deep alignment with everyone who is an influencer in the sport,” Garber said. “I not only ask this, but I insist that everyone who is paid to work in this sport, that they align with the vision.”
Klinsmann’s job wasn’t to sell season tickets to casual American consumers. His role was to pick the best available players to win games for the United States and build a nation of 325 million people into World Cup challengers. Mexico’s 25-man squad that left Columbus with a 2-1 win last month featured 13 players employed in Spain, Germany, Italy and the big clubs in Holland and Portugal. Few Americans are tested to that degree.
U.S. Soccer expanded Klinsmann’s remit in December 2013 to include technical director responsibilities. He had no chance of effecting change in a system undermined by the same murky pay-to-play ethos that has corrupted American politics. The New York Cosmos, America’s most storied club, cannot reach the country’s top league despite winning the second-division title unless they pay upwards of $100 million to buy into the ruling cartel. Disenfranchised teams incarcerated in minor-league irrelevance offset the lack of fan interest by running youth academies that charge $3,000 per year. Millions of potentially talented youngsters are sidelined by their parents’ economic disadvantage while the gravy train rumbles on for those in cushy jobs with no consequences for failure.
Questions surrounded Klinsmann’s coaching ability before his U.S. appointment. Senior Bayern Munich players criticized his lack of technical instruction during his 9-month stint in charge at the Allianz Arena. His baffling inclusion of Zimbabwean trialist Joseph Ngwenya in the 2008 German Supercup against Borussia Dortmund suggested talent identification issues given that Ngwenya had spent the past year flailing around at the Houston Dynamo.
He did galvanize enough of his U.S. players to obtain good results for a decent stretch. Most managers find that their messaging eventually becomes stale, and that’s when chairman, directors or federation leaders are faced with replacing a handful of coaches or 30 players. Pragmatism wins.
Costa Rica’s 4-0 hammering of the Americans a few days after the Mexico loss signaled the end for Klinsmann. Eight remaining games against Central American opposition gives the U.S. sufficient scope to accumulate the points needed to reach Russia. They would have reached that target under Klinsmann. They will do so instead under former head coach Bruce Arena.
It won’t be pretty. And America’s underlying issues remain a long way from being addressed.
1The six continuing coaches from the 2014 World Cup are Ange Postecoglou (Australia), Jose Pekerman (Colombia), Didier Deschamps (France), Joachim Low (Germany), Carlos Queiroz (Iran) and Oscar Tabarez (Uruguay). Postecoglou, Pekerman and Deschamps were appointed after Klinsmann became U.S. coach.