FOX Soccer Exclusive
Klinsmann the cause of USA's woes?
Needless to say, USA's manager Jurgen Klinsmann remains upbeat.
When asked what it would be like if his squad were to lose to Jamaica for a second time in five days on Monday, Klinsmann quickly replied, ''No, we won't (lose). Don't worry.''
Yet for all intents and purposes, the status quo had outstayed its welcome. The United States had been playing more or less the same way for decades – relying on organization, sound defense, fitness and athleticism, ruggedness and an unshakable belief in the breakaway and the long ball. But all those qualities, bedrock to six consecutive World Cup qualifications and anything else the US ever achieved on a soccer field, had outlived their utility. Overnight, they had grown intolerable.
Like a political candidate sweeping into office on the promise of change, better results and permanent sunshine, Klinsmann was to instantly ameliorate life as we knew it. When Bob Bradley was fired for allegedly letting his team turn stale, the United States Soccer Federation appointed the long-since longed-for Klinsmann – who had retooled Germany from stodgy results-grinders to swashbuckling young ball-dazzlers in his last spell as a national team coach. There was talk of a culture change and the next level. We, the soccer media, jumped on the bandwagon – if we didn’t pull it ourselves.
On Aug. 1, three days after landing the job, Klinsmann strolled casually onto a stage, wearing sneakers below his suit, for a Monday morning press conference at Niketown in mid-town Manhattan. He spoke of playing a “proactive” style, of finding a soccer identity for America that represents and utilizes its diversity, and of building on the foundations laid by his predecessors.
In the following weeks, he defined “proactive” as a technical, high-paced, high-pressure system that rapidly transitions from defending to attacking by the grace of a back line that’s strong on the ball. Whereas most national team coaches use practice to keep players healthy and go through basic tactics, Klinsmann’s two-a-days or three-a-days lingered endlessly on technique, fitness and the tenets of his system. He introduced his players to early-morning empty-stomach runs, brought in nutritionists and scheduled team yoga sessions. It was a new dawn indeed.
Thirteen months and seventeen games on (in which Klinsmann went 8-6-3), one can’t help but wonder what’s become of the lofty goals. Yes, the US has beaten Italy for the first time ever and taken its first win on Mexican soil too. But the longer the Klinsmann era has gone, the more his team has looked like Bradley’s. Or Bruce Arena’s. Or Steve Sampson’s.
In its first ever loss to Jamaica in a World Cup Qualifier on Friday, the team was back to playing an unimaginative 4-4-2 system with a deep-sitting holding midfielder and two wide players whose primary concern was defensive. It looked for all the world like a bad impression of a Bob Bradley team, who mostly played with two holding midfielders in an otherwise identical 4-4-2. For no longer than 20-minute flashes has the US played the advertised attractive possession-soccer while Klinsmann has been in charge. The rest of the time it has lumbered after the ball, sitting deep and showing little initiative. Certainly, it eked out the wins over Mexico and Italy deploying tactics that in no way resembled Klinsmann’s blueprint and in every way resembled the good old American way of winning soccer games.
The only significant demographic introduced to the team by Klinsmann, meanwhile, was the strange multitude of Germans born to American servicemen – whose gene pool surely should be conserved for the US national teams of the future – a trend actually set in motion by Bradley.
After all the fuss about reinvention, the team looks more or less the same in style and personnel, relying on or deeming unworthy exactly same players as Bradley did – a generation clearly set in its ways and for the most part ill-equipped to handle a technical helter-skelter philosophy. It isn’t in their footballing DNA. The US team, to use a terrible sporting cliché, is what it is, no matter who is in charge.
Klinsmann’s aspirational notions shouldn’t be held against him. The program certainly was in need of some ambition. But if his conditioning is on the cutting edge and his lifestyle management far-reaching, he has failed to settle on the house style he declared imperative. His call-ups have been unpredictable and his insistence on playing central midfielders out wide, robbing the team of width, questionable. When it comes to the actual coaching of a soccer team, Klinsmann has made no impression at all in his time in charge.
The hour is still early and the sample size small. But with just four points from three qualifiers and advancement into the fourth qualifying stage no longer straightforward, the realization dawns that the match might not be as hoped for and the marriage not guaranteed to always be a happy one.
The revolution has not come.
Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.