In the run up to and wake of the USMNT’s 3–2 extra time loss to Mexico, it seems the fanbase and commentators have largely fallen into one of three camps. One camp says that the results and progress since the 2014 World Cup are simply not good enough and Jurgen Klinsmann has to go. Another camp says Klinsmann’s is a long-term project, the 2014 World Cup was just the beginning, and to change coaches now is to quit on the revolution too soon. And a third just wants to be woken up when serious World Cup qualifying begins before they judge the manager.
But after four-plus years of the Klinsmann experiment have left the United States pretty much where they were when he was hired, a more basic question about his tenure needs to be addressed and hasn’t been. What if Klinsmann’s failing is not that he’s not a good enough tactical manager or cannot translate his vision into results on the field. What if Klinsmann’s vision for US soccer is simply wrong?
The legend of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as the USMNT manager and technical director began with his apperance on ESPN following the USMNT’s elimination from the 2010 World Cup. A certain myth has emerged about this two-minute monologue in our hot take culture, that Klinsmann issued some sort of brutal take down against the entire culture and philosophy of soccer in the United States and the people charged with running it at the highest level. But listen to his actual words.
Klinsmann says three things:
- The United States lost because Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard did not play up to their potential.
- The "pay-to-play" model in youth soccer hurts development by freezing out lower-income players and shifting the focus to the college scholarship rather than a professional career as payoff.
- The most important skill the United States needs to develop in its players is a better first touch.
Number one has nothing to do with grand visions for the sport. Number two is a well-known issue that MLS and the Development Academy system were already starting to address. And number three is the closest to an expression of a new philosophy but is actually a fairly obvious observation when comparing the USMNT to elite international sides or comparing MLS to top European leagues.
These three points transformed into a new philosophy for the sport along with a fourth that is central to the Klinsmann legend but does not appear until later: the need for a new, more proactive style of play. Klinsmann’s idea, taken as an article of faith, is that the United States cannot become a world power and challenge for World Cups as a defend-and-counter team. The United States must, according to Klinsmann, transform itself into a team that can possess the ball, pass it around the park, and break down any team. Essentially that to beat Brazil, Spain, and Germany, the United States must become them.
The fact that this idea has not been seriously debated or challenged leads to the current difficulty with evaluating Klinsmann as both a manager and a technical director. Any failure has the built-in excuse that revolution takes time. Many of Klinsmann’s successes have the built-in caveat that they came by continuing the playing style he himself says no longer works at the highest level.
But is it necessary? Matthew Doyle of MLSSoccer.com provided an exhaustive history of the modern tatical evolution of the USMNT in the modern era for the first issue of Howler magazine. His description of the current high water mark for US Soccer, the destruction of Mexico in the 2002 Round of 16, is the needed counterargument to Klinsmann’s vision:
Though the U.S. had made some progress against Mexico over the seven years leading up to that game, El Tri was favored. They were simply so much more comfortable with the ball that the thought was they’d pass the U.S. to death. Arena was content to let them try. His master stroke was scrapping the 4–4–2 for a 3–5–2, which the U.S. hadn’t used in more than a year by that point. What’s more, Reyna was at right wing back, so by design the U.S. would rarely have the ball. Arena wanted those midfield turnovers so they could play direct, ruthless soccer, just as the Czechs had done to Gansler’s side 12 years prior.
Doyle’s wrap-up of the 2002 World Cup is just as important when trying to figure out what ails the current USMNT:
Harnessing all these individual talents and getting them all to buy into "run fast, try hard" regardless of formation was Arena’s best accomplishment and an important stop on the U.S. evolutionary process. In one game, against Mexico, they’d applied the lessons of the past. In the next, against Germany, they’d shown a fluidity in possession and attack that shined a light on the future.
The evidence of the 2002 World Cup and to a lesser extent the 2009 Confederations Cup is that the United States does not need to reinvent itself to win a World Cup. The USA can compete with the world’s best by defending stoutly, pressing in the midfield, and bombing forward on the counter. And that doesn’t mean resigning American fans to boring, cynical displays like Greece 2004 or Italy 2006. Look no further than the brilliant counterattack against Brazil.
So how does the United States take this style and translate it from bright flashes (2002, 2009) amid dark days (2006, parts of 2010, 2011)? By focusing on the things Klinsmann said on ESPN back in 2010, not what he didn’t. By establishing a stronger, more inclusive development system so the USMNT is not dependent on extraordinary performances by three players. And by being better with the first touch so defense can be turned into attack that much faster.
The most fundamental question with Klinsmann’s tenure and whether it should continue is not how long it might take or whether he is the right person to lead it or whether he should be both manager and technical director. The single most important question is whether Klinsmann the head coach and technical director of US Soccer has the right idea about what the USMNT needs or whether Klinsmann the ESPN commentator had diagnosed the problem already.