Jurgen Klinsmann has alienated just about everyone and it may be his undoing
When Jurgen Klinsmann was announced as the United States manager five years ago, he had more good will built up than perhaps any other manager in the program’s modern history.
There was every reason to give him the benefit of the doubt. He won a World Cup and a European Championship as a player. He managed Germany to a third-place World Cup finish. His resume was filled with European success that instilled instant trust and credibility for Americans.
"One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country," Klinsmann said at his introductory press conference. "What should be the style of play? Is it more proactive and aggressive forward-thinking style of play or a reactive style of play?"
When Klinsmann said that, many people trusted he would find the answer and committed to following Klinsmann there. After all, he looked like as close to a sure thing as the USMNT could’ve hoped for. But over the last five years, Klinsmann has remarkably managed to squander all that trust and adoration, not just through bad results, but by alienating fans and stakeholders in the American soccer community.
When the USMNT stumbled under Klinsmann – like they did last week when they lost the first two matches of the Hex for the first time ever, or last year in their worst Gold Cup finish in 15 years – few Klinsmann defenders were left to give the coach the benefit of the doubt. Over the years, Klinsmann had rubbed people the wrong way by publicly shaming his players, condemning the quality of MLS, insulting the intelligence of American soccer fans and journalists, and doing it all while deflecting blame at every turn.
If Klinsmann does end up getting fired soon – which just about every major news outlet that covers soccer has called for – his gradual alienation of the American soccer community over the years may end up being a factor. And it may very well start with the players, who Klinsmann has often called out and blamed when things have gone poorly.
Just recently, he blamed Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones for the USMNT’s early struggles against Mexico when it was really his disastrous tactical decision that was the root problem. Bradley and Jones separately told reporters that no one of the field was clear on what they were supposed to do and, in a defacto timeout after Mexico’s goal, it appeared that Bradley and Jones asked Klinsmann to change the formation. But in the post-game press conference, Klinsmann decried how Bradley and Jones "didn’t get into the 1v1 battles we expected them to" and failed to hold down the midfield.
But it’s what Klinsmann had done all along. When the USMNT got shellacked by a superior Brazil team, Klinsmann called out Alejandro Bedoya for struggling, despite the fact that Klinsmann asked Bedoya to play a holding midfield role he had never played before. He did the same thing after the USMNT lost a crucial CONCACAF Cup match to Mexico – he went out of his way to announce he sent Fabian Johnson home early because Johnson, who felt muscle tightness during the match, asked to come off and forced Klinsmann to waste a luxury penalty kick substitution that, in reality, didn’t actually matter.
The rumblings of player discontent over the years have often been hinted at quietly without players speaking on the record about it. But for other stakeholders – American fans, coaches and officials – the exasperation at Klinsmann’s constant deflection is much more obvious.
On Sunday night, after a historically bad start to the Hex, Klinsmann went after his critics, telling the New York Times that "there is a lot of talk from people who don’t understand soccer or the team." He implied people were being too "emotional" and didn’t know enough about the sport to criticize him. But that wasn’t a new refrain from Klinsmann, though.
When the U.S. were thoroughly outplayed and had their worst Gold Cup finish in 15 years last summer, Klinsmann said fans didn’t understand why the USMNT lost at the Gold Cup because they don’t understand soccer.
"Do they understand really what happened in the Gold Cup? Some of them absolutely do and a lot of people don’t," he told the Washington Post. "I take it, it’s not a big deal. But it also explains we have a long way to go to educate people on the game of soccer still in this country."
In that same two-part interview, Klinsmann said he didn’t want to blame the referees – and then blamed the referees for a tournament where Klinsmann’s lineups made little sense and the USMNT looked flat throughout.
"A big problem hanging over us is called CONCACAF," he said last year. "We don’t want to blame anybody. I am not blaming the referees, but I’m just telling you, the referees had a huge influence on the outcome of the Gold Cup."
Klinsmann managed to accept none of the responsibility for a Gold Cup finish that was a disaster by any measure, which was pretty much how Klinsmann always reacted to setbacks. That’s why it was such a surprise Klinsmann uttered these words on Tuesday after a 4-0 loss in Costa Rica: "It’s not about blaming anybody or the players – it’s about taking responsibility, which I do."
Never had he said that after a loss – never had Klinsmann so directly took accountability – but the fact that it finally came after a historically bad loss suggests Klinsmann may realize his tact has been the wrong one all along. But he may have realized it far too late into his tenure.
Of course, U.S. Soccer may not be too concerned with whether fans universally like Klinsmann or not. Any coach will have detractors – even after the women’s team won the World Cup, some fans were still frustrated by what many deemed a sub-par tournament, particularly in the early rounds. Fan appreciation does not equal results. It’s also been pretty clear that Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, wants to stand by the man that Gulati personally targeted for years, even in the face of bumps in the road.
But Klinsmann’s vanishing good will and stubborn refusal to take accountability for bad results may put just as much pressure on Gulati as recent bad results have. Asked about it last year, Gulati told reporters that Klinsmann’s tendency to blame others was not only something he was aware of, but something he had discussed with the coach.
“Noticed and discussed," Gulati said. "Everyone has their own style. In the end, he’s the coach, but we’ve talked about some of those issues, for sure.”
Klinsmann also hasn’t exactly endeared himself to those in MLS, which is a driving force in American soccer. He has refused to call up some MLS standouts that many feel deserve a shot. But that comes on top of comments he has made criticizing the league and lobbying for players to go to Europe rather than ply their trade stateside. When Klinsmann said Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley moving to MLS from European clubs "means that you are not playing in the competitive environment that you were in before," MLS commissioner Don Garber was so offended he quickly arranged a press conference to bat down the criticisms.
Now, with everyone still waiting for a clear answer to the question about style of play that Klinsmann posed at his introductory press conference and with very little good will left, it’s hard to see how much further Klinsmann can go – even if the USMNT does bounce back with some positive results after a disastrous start to the Hex. Progress is never linear, but the players, and indeed the fans, have seemed to give up hope in the latest setbacks.
It’s a stunning fall from grace for the manager that could do no wrong in the earlier days. Klinsmann started his tenure with an abysmal record, losing four of his first six matches, but the faith in Klinsmann’s long-term leadership was there. Even after a now-infamous report of locker room discontent came out in 2013, most seemed to think Klinsmann could use the feedback to steer things back on track, which he seemingly did well enough for a round of 16 World Cup finish the following year.
For a long time, Klinsmann earned the benefit of the doubt as the man to lead the USA forward – he was the Jurgen Klinsmann, after all. But by alienating large swaths of the people who make up American soccer, from the players themselves to journalists and fans, Klinsmann isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt anymore, and that may ultimately be his undoing.
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