Jurgen Klinsmann leaves behind a complex, unfulfilled U.S. Soccer legacy
Less then three weeks after he became only the fifth player named “Ehrenspielführer”—honorary captain of the German national team—and only four days after joining President Barack Obama in Berlin at a state dinner hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired as U.S. coach and technical director.
Klinsmann’s legacy in his native country is secure. His legacy in his adopted country is going to be a whole lot harder to define.
From the moment he met the massed media at his introductory news conference in 2011, Klinsmann was the smiling, ever-present face of U.S. Soccer. The buzz that day—and his almost constant presence in the headlines since—was a testament to his charisma, celebrity and the degree to which fans hoped he would fulfill his promise. Klinsmann was hired not just to win, but to influence playing style, tactics, philosophy, habits and approach at all levels of the American game. He was asked to rewrite U.S. soccer’s mission statement, instruction manual and game plan.
Five years later, incredibly, he risks being regarded as a footnote. For every hint of progress toward his ambitious goal, there was a step back, a mitigating circumstance, a bit of bad luck or a self-defeating impulse. It was a wild ride. Klinsmann was quotable, colorful and occasionally controversial. There are memories and stories galore. But it’s unclear whether anything substantive has been left behind—and Klinsmann must be judged differently than his predecessors due to his mandate and U.S. Soccer’s investment.
His record was a very respectable 55-27-16. Among those 55 victories are the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup final defeat of Panama—which was part of a program-record 12-game win streak— the satisfying World Cup triumph over Ghana and last summer’s Copa América Centenario quarterfinal win over Ecuador. But Klinsmann never beat a team ranked in FIFA’s top 10 in official competition (his three predecessors did). Too many of his big wins didn’t count.
Then there were the stunning setbacks, led by the 2015 Gold Cup semifinal upset by Jamaica and the three World Cup qualifying defeats this year. Klinsmann was the first U.S. coach to lose to Mexico in Columbus, the first to lose a home qualifier (or consecutive qualifiers) in 15 years and the first to suffer a four-game home winless streak against regional opposition since the 1960s. Klinsmann yielded CONCACAF while focusing on heavyweights in Europe and South America.
Style points also were hard to come by. Klinsmann preached and promised proactive, dynamic soccer. It was an invigorating idea, but it never materialized consistently. The U.S. counted on grit and resilience, rather than flair and possession, to get to the second round of the 2014 World Cup. There, a sensational performance by goalkeeper Tim Howard saved the opportunistic Americans from annihilation. Among the seven U.S. teams that have qualified for the World Cup in American soccer’s modern era, Klinsmann’s side took the fewest shots per 90 minutes, yielded the most and eclipsed only the 1994 squad in possession. At the 2015 Gold Cup, the U.S. again struggled to create chances. In his search for the right formula, Klinsmann tinkered and tampered too frequently. Training sessions didn’t build toward a long-term goal. By the end, his national team had next to no sense of its own identity. Even that renowned grit and resilience seemed lacking by the time the U.S. took the field in Costa Rica two weeks ago.
“We need to build a chemistry with this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept,” Bruce Arena said Tuesday as he was introduced as Klinsmann’s replacement. “I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we just got to get them working together as a team. There are no real secrets in how you build good teams. It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent."
Chemistry and cohesion had been what the U.S. could count on against elite teams that played superior soccer. And if it’s now gone, that represents a step back.
Of course, every national team coach has to refresh his first team and the player pool. And Klinsmann took some intriguing chances along the way, opening the door for Stanford University junior Jordan Morris and NASL star Miguel Ibarra while sticking with Bobby Wood and John Brooks as they got acclimated. Perhaps future U.S. coaches now will feel free to be as creative. But for every addition, there was a puzzling subtraction, highlighted by Klinsmann’s inability to find common ground with Benny Feilhaber and capped off by his stunning decision to leave Landon Donovan off the 2014 World Cup team.
Donovan almost single-handedly brought Klinsmann his only title, and the coach’s refusal to maintain faith in a player who consistently rose to the occasion represented a dereliction of duty. It’s a manager’s job to figure out how to press on and get the best out of his most talented players, not cast them aside when things get complicated.
Donovan’s short stints at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich and his decision to play out his career in Los Angeles were antithetical to self-improvement and success at the highest level, Klinsmann would argue. He wanted his players to push themselves, to never be satisfied and to seek out the sort of cutthroat environments that demand consistent excellence.
“If they’re in Glasgow, if they’re in Hoffenheim or Salt Lake City, it’s all different and it plays a big role,” he said in 2011, shortly after taking the job. “If you play in an environment, where if you lose Rangers against Celtic, you don’t want to go to the baker the next morning. If you lose that game in Salt Lake City, it’s different. I don’t think somebody will bother you about that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you lost last night, but no problem.’ In Glasgow, nobody will say, ‘Oh, it’s no problem.’ They will give you crap for five days. You don’t want to go outside anymore.”
It’s logical in theory, and Klinsmann frequently offered to leverage his connections on behalf of his players. But for several, those connections proved less enticing than MLS’s increased buying power. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones, Eddie Johnson and others left Europe for MLS while the likes of Matt Besler, Chris Wondolowski, Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman remained. His exhortations fell on deaf ears.
Klinsmann poked at MLS in public and occasionally railed against it in private, and much of what he said about the level of play, relative dearth of pressure, competition and consequences and season length had merit. But the league wasn’t going to improve by standing pat and Klinsmann was unable to stem the tide. After a public spat with MLS commissioner Don Garber in late 2014, Klinsmann toned down the rhetoric. Then this fall, he inexplicably criticized DeAndre Yedlin for leaving the Tottenham Hotspur bench for a starting role at Newcastle United, which likely is Premier League bound. Damned if you do….
Meanwhile, Klinsmann was unable to handle the criticism he wanted U.S. players to face, or which he sometimes levied himself following defeats. He repeatedly questioned the acumen of American fans and media and often was condescending. He took responsibility infrequently and only in the broadest sense—the specific explanations for a loss typically fell on the shoulders of his players, the referee or isolated events unrelated to his game plan. All of it damaged relationships that could have been so much stronger. Klinsmann used the press and social media with dexterity. He was approachable, accessible and friendly. He reminded us at times that sport was meant to be enjoyed. He engaged with reporters and reached out directly to fans through Facebook and other platforms. That could have been a unique 21st legacy, but it was undermined by his petulance.
Lastly, there is Klinsmann the technical director—the visionary who was supposed to put U.S. soccer on a new developmental path. Questions arose frequently about how much Klinsmann, who lives in Southern California, was involved in the day-to-day administration running the Federation from Chicago. Under Klinsmann’s watch, U.S. Soccer added new youth national teams, expanded the Development Academy to younger age groups and overhauled its coaching education and licensing programs. It hired Double PASS, a Belgian consulting firm spun off from the University of Brussels, to evaluate and audit Academy clubs. The extent to which Klinsmann helped implement those plans is unclear, but most of it would have happened eventually (if not immediately) anyway. They were Federation initiatives. He’s been credited with opening lines of communication between youth national team and academy coaches, which is important. But U.S. youth sides didn’t improve during his tenure. The low-point—the U-23 team failed to qualify for both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
For every step forward, a step back. And it cost U.S. Soccer five years and approximately $20 million.
Asked to summarize Klinsmann’s legacy, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said, “The seriousness with which players may approach the game and their craft is one of those things. You will see some things that have happened in terms of our grass-roots programs and what we call the zone two programs [such as the academies]. The shorter-term issues, things like new players being brought in, whether it’s Christian [Pulisic], or Bobby Wood or Jordan Morris or players playing in Germany, those are obvious.”
He continued, “But another important one off the field is the awareness of the program, the attention to the program. Jurgen, by who he was, elevated the program in terms of its publicity, awareness, not only in the United States but around the world. That’s a positive thing for the sport and the national team. We’ll see some of the dividends.”
All publicity is good publicity. Gulati probably is right (except for the part about Pulisic). As stated, Klinsmann had a habit of hitting the headlines, and he certainly helped grow the game by getting past to the second round in 2014. There were a lot of Americans in Brazil, and a lot of column inches and URLs devoted to a coach who arrived with so much hype and who had so many exciting things to say. On that front, Klinsmann’s WAR was pretty good.
It’s a baseball statistic—Wins Above Replacement—which, according to MLB, “measures a player’s value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he’s worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (e.g., a Minor League replacement or a readily available fill-in free agent)." It’s worth asking whether that five years and $20 million bought a coach who’s on-field WAR was much beyond zero. Arena had three years of pro coaching experience when he took the national team job in late 1998. He won two Gold Cups and got to the World Cup quarterfinals. Perhaps an average MLS coach doesn’t put Brooks on the field toward the end of the Ghana game. But perhaps that coach doesn’t try so hard to turn the national team into something it’s not. And maybe he doesn’t lose to Jamaica or Guatemala.
Klinsmann will be remembered for plenty. But he failed to deliver what he promised, at least in the short term. There will be some debate in years to come about whether he told us anything about American soccer we didn’t know already, or whether he used his bully pulpit to plant the seeds for tangible change. Perhaps American soccer simply needed someone to hold up a mirror. If he did, that’s a legacy.
A roller coaster ends where it begins. The cars hit heights and depths or turn upside down, but ultimately they arrive back at the start to pick up the next set of passengers. When Arena talks about “work[ing] on a team concept,” that’s foundational stuff. It wouldn’t be necessary if Klinsmann had accomplished anything unprecedented in official competition or left the team with an identity. One step forward and one step back leaves you standing in the same place.
He promised too much and was entrusted with too much. American soccer’s growth is a multigenerational project. It’s a long and complex road with competing cultures and constituencies. Trying to cut corners—asking or believing the impossible from one person—is counterproductive. There is no savior, no magic bullet. If Klinsmann’s tenure resulted in nothing but that critical reminder, then that’s a legacy as well.