Sometimes, the sensible thing to do is nevertheless unexpected. On Thursday, the United States Soccer Federation announced that it had renewed its contract with United States men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann through 2018 in a plain press release.
His prior deal, which began on July 31, 2011, ran through 2013. The new contract will see to it that Klinsmann remains in charge through the 2018 World Cup in Russia and also makes him the federation’s technical director.
The deal makes sense in many ways. Klinsmann, in spite of a sputtering start in the job, has had success. His mandate was to lift the senior national team to a higher plane and set out a vision for the rest of the program, and he has done that. And with his contract coming up, it was a matter of time before he’d be linked with other jobs — Switzerland and Tottenham reportedly already showed interest.
“We’re not oblivious to the fact that Jurgen over the last few years has had an extraordinary run with the national team and that would build a lot of interest on the outside,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said in a conference call.
Still, the timing is strange, coming less than a week after the United States received a brutal draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil — where it will be chucked into a lethal Group G with Ghana and Germany, who combined to eliminate the Americans from the last three World Cups, as well as Portugal.
Unless, of course, US Soccer wanted to preempt any criticism it would face if it were to renew Klinsmann after what is, unfortunately, a probable first-round elimination in Brazil. Because that might have looked a tad funny.
Gulati, however, insists that the extension predicated the Dec. 6 draw. “To make very clear, we didn’t reach an agreement after the draw, we had an agreement before the draw,” he said. “This isn’t a reaction to anything that happened at the draw itself.”
The message, then, seems unambiguous: Klinsmann is our man, no matter what happens this summer, and there’s plenty to underpin such thinking. Since overhauling the program’s methods and protocols and shaking up the team’s ossified hierarchy, running into considerable resistance at turns, Klinsmann’s vision for a livelier playing style more in tune with the world’s elite has allowed the Americans to better compete. It hasn’t always come quite as advertised, but by and large, the soccer has been better and the results are too.
Klinsmann’s first World Cup qualifying campaign started at a shuffle, with a difficult third qualifying phase and a dreary 2-1 loss in Honduras in the hexagonal round opener, followed by something of an anonymously-sourced mutiny. But it ended in a full gallop, with a place in Brazil secured with a full 10 points to spare. In the meantime, several big, scary dragons were slayed in friendlies as the United States beat Mexico and Italy on their home soil for the first time ever, managed to win in Bosnia and beat a diluted Germany side at home.
To wit, Klinsmann’s 27-10-7 record includes a record-tying and record-setting year. In 2012, his 9-2-3 (W-L-D) record was as good as any the US men had had. In 2013, his 16-4-3 broke the record for wins and winning percentage. A 12-game winning streak was another first and encapsulated the reclaimed CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Yet for all the good vibes, there’s an elephant in the room. The track record of second-term US coaches is rather poor. His two most recent predecessors, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, in order, had a hard time of it during their second World Cup cycle. Arena’s triumphant run to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals was followed by an ignominious first-round exit in 2006. After Bradley’s sound result in South Africa in 2010, when the Americans were bounced by Ghana during extra time in the round of 16, they looked flat and complacent during the 2011 Gold Cup, whereupon Bradley was dismissed.
Given that history, such an early Klinsmann re-signing ought to give you pause, no matter how strong his body of work. “I think there’s lots of things that are different,” Gulati countered. “Our performance over the last two years is very, very good. Not only the wins and losses, but how we’ve played. And we think supporting that effort both going into the World Cup and beyond is the right way to go.”
Still, seven-and-a-half years is a long time to work anywhere and is fairly well unheard of today in international soccer — only Denmark’s Morten Olsen, who has been manager there since 2000 and just re-upped until 2016 springs to mind. What’s more is that Klinsmann, through all the smiles and giggles and positivity, is a demanding coach.
He asks of his players that they seek and strive and reach ever higher, sucking dry every droplet of talent and potential their careers hold. He tolerates no long off-seasons, like Major League Soccer’s, and urges his domestically-based players to go on overseas loans or training stints during the winter. When they come into national team camps, they are expected to do even more than they do at their clubs, with two-a-day training sessions and elaborate fitness testing all too common. This, too, is unusual on the international scene. And Klinsmann’s players might very well tire of him.
Yet with the addition to his job title, Klinsmann now wields even more control. We want to show the players and we want to show everyone involved in the game here that there is a plan in place,” HE SAID. “This is not just a process that depends purely on the result at the World Cup. It gives you a bit more consistency, it gives you more opportunity to follow through with things. It’s easier to get everybody pulling in the same direction if they know you are kind of long-term here.”
We don’t yet know how, exactly, the United States will do down in Brazil, of course. Delivering a statement of intent was US Soccer’s prerogative. But a disastrous campaign might still make Klinsmann’s position untenable. Nowhere was it written that the federation couldn’t wait out the World Cup before making a decision.
“Traditionally, we’ve waited until after the World Cup,” conceded Gulati. “We’ve decided not to do that here. Jurgen is a unique coach with unique opportunities. We like what’s been happening with the program over the last couple of years. All of this doesn’t come down to one game and one missed shot or one save. Clearly the World Cup is extraordinarily important and it’s the measure of where we are. But it’s not the only thing and the only way we measure ourselves.”
Plainly, Klinsmann is a different coach than Arena or Bradley. His repute is international. Besides, the sample size is too small to declare outright that second terms are bad ideas for US managers. And on the strength of the empirical evidence of his performance thus far, there is little to be done but to applaud the decision.