U.S. Soccer pulls the plug on its grand Jurgen Klinsmann experiment
Defiant to the last, Jurgen Klinsmann maintained this weekend that a U.S. national team in “a transitional phase” remained on course to reach Russia and that he needed more time to implement his ambitious plans for the program.
He’s not going to get it. After all, Klinsmann already has had more than five years, and with next to no tangible improvement evident and the pressure mounting following this month’s historic World Cup qualifying setbacks, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati finally pulled the plug on U.S. Soccer’s grand experiment. Klinsmann was fired Monday. He departs with a 55-27-16 record (28-13-6 in official competition), one CONCACAF Gold Cup title, plenty of unfulfilled promises and what’s sure to be a complex legacy.
“Many are aware of the historic victories … but there were also lesser publicized efforts behind the scenes. He challenged everyone in the U.S. Soccer community to think about things in new ways, and thanks to his efforts we have grown as an organization and expect there will be benefits from his work for years to come,” Gulati said in a statement announcing Klinsmann’s dismissal.
“While we remain confident that we have quality players to help us advance to Russia 2018, the form and growth of the team up to this point left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction.”
No immediate replacement was named.
“With the next qualifying match in late March, we have several months to refocus the group and determine the best way forward to ensure a successful journey to qualify for our eighth-consecutive World Cup,” Gulati said Monday.
Klinsmann’s departure was tough to imagine a month ago, especially for Gulati, who staked so much of his own reputation and the federation’s finances on the charismatic German coach.
“We have not had a coach in 27 years that has started World Cup qualifying and not finished World Cup qualifying,” Gulati said before the U.S. kicked off the 10-game final round. “We've never changed coaches in the Hex … and I expect that to be the case here.”
But no one expected the defeat, regression and tension that was just around the corner.
Klinsmann told The New York Times this weekend that, “If you really want to move up to the top 15 in the world, you need to have consistency in what you’re doing.” He was referring to his job security, but the comments are ironic considering his approach to managing the national team. On November 11, hours after Gulati offered his vote of confidence, Klinsmann sent the U.S. out to face Mexico in new formation that featured several players, including 18-year-old attacker Christian Pulisic, in new positions. The Americans were overrun in the first half and reverted to a more comfortable 4-4-2 only after veterans Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones requested the change during a stoppage.
At the end of a troubling evening, the U.S. had lost to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, for the first time and Klinsmann was blaming Bradley, Jones and defender John Brooks for the defeat.
Four days later, the U.S. was destroyed, 4-0, in Costa Rica. Several players appeared unfit or out of place and the capitulation during the second-half in San Jose was stunning to long-time observers of the national team. The U.S. had lost consecutive qualifiers for the first time in 15 years and earned fewer than three points during the first two games of the Hex for the first time.
Klinsmann was hired to do more than win games. He was tasked with setting U.S. soccer on a new course—changing and improving the way American players are developed, the way they think about the game and the way they approach their careers.
There were some good results along the way. The U.S. won the 2013 Gold Cup in spectacular fashion and finished first in the Hex that same year. Klinsmann proved to be an effective recruiter and enticed several promising dual-nationals to pledge their international futures to the U.S. There were results that remain open to interpretation. The Americans escaped a tough group at the 2014 World Cup and took Belgium to extra time in the round-of-16, but were outplayed by a significant margin in three of their four games. And they finished fourth at the Copa América Centenario this summer with a 3-3-0 record, beating the teams they should beat and losing to Argentina and Colombia (twice) by a combined 7-0.
Then there were the results that proved to be part of Klinsmann’s undoing. It’s tough to imagine a coach in just about any other country in the world surviving the equivalent of the fourth-place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup, which featured a moribund group-stage performance and the first home loss to Jamaica in national team history. Klinsmann lost a qualifier to Guatemala this year, suffered a four-game home winless streak to CONCACAF foes last year and saw his hand-picked coaches fail to qualify for two consecutive Olympics. As technical director, he bears responsibility for national teams at all levels.
Additionally, his teams never played the proactive, attacking soccer he promised on a consistent basis. That’s evident via the eye test and is supported by plenty of statistics. For example, over the past three tournaments plus last year’s Confederations Cup playoff, the U.S. was outshot by a combined 292-169.
Klinsmann has bristled when these issues are raised. He’s argued that catching up with the sport’s elite takes time—he’s surely right about that—and that those criticizing him don’t necessarily appreciate what soccer at its highest level requires. He maintained those positions this weekend, telling The Times, “What you need to do is stick to the facts. Soccer is emotional and a lot of people make conclusions without knowing anything about the inside of the team or the sport …. The fact is, we lost two games. There is a lot of talk from people who don’t understand soccer or the team.”
Last summer during the Copa América, he told reporters, “Over time we always said we want to move this program to another level. I think we did that over time. There will be some setbacks and there’s also a lot of explanation from your end that needs to be done to the casual soccer fan or kind of the more emotional soccer fan, so we still go through a lot of education explaining why certain things happen when there is a setback.”
Insulated by Gulati’s commitment and the idea that any criticism stemmed from impatience or ignorance, Klinsmann appeared untouchable. But alienating U.S. Soccer’s customers—the fans—became a genuine issue. Public support for the manager has waned in recent months and attendance has been down. And publicly blaming his players following defeats, to say nothing of the constant tactical uncertainty, seemed to be wearing thin inside the locker room.
“There’s a need to support each other,” Bradley said following last week’s rout in Costa Rica. “In moments like this, it does you no good to point fingers, to be looking around trying to figure out who you can throw under the bus. That’s not how it works and that’s not what real teams are all about.”
Without the fans, without the locker room and with the margin for error in World Cup qualifying now almost gone, Klinsmann’s position was increasingly untenable. If there was a time to cut the cord, it was now. The next qualifiers aren’t scheduled until March. There were questions about whether Gulati still would have faith that Klinsmann’s vision could come to pass, that more time might do the trick or that he’d share the embattled manager’s view that criticism or pessimism are signs of the very culture he was trying to change. There were questions about whether Gulati would absorb the financial cost of the firing or whether he had tied his own ego, mandate or legacy too closely with Klinsmann.
Gulati answered them Monday. There had been one too many plunges on this roller coaster ride, one too many head-scratching decisions, one too many tough results. Faith in Klinsmann had been shaken and couldn’t be recovered. After five memorable, intriguing, controversial years, U.S. Soccer will move forward without the man who promised to lead the way.