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Klinsmann Apologetics: An opposing look at the case against Jurgen Klinsmann

Jurgen Klinsmann is under fire but the case is too one-sided.

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I can't say that I'm officially a Klinsmann Apologist but I do believe in the importance of balance in life, and what I see out there among the US fan base is anything but balanced. Fans are mad. They are worried about the World Cup and they are concerned that the team is regressing. Those are absolutely reasonable feelings but the reality is things are fine, perhaps even better than they should be.

To fuel the fire we're being inundated with arguments for the expulsion of a man Germany considers a football savior. Germany. Ya know, World Cup Champions. One of the better collection of arguments comes from @MLSist Pablo Maurer. It's funny and thorough and here is the tweet.

Let's go through this list with a fine tooth comb and examine how we should really feel about Klinsmann's tenure and maybe add some of the good ingredients to balance things out.

First three-game losing streak since 1997

This happened twice in the Klinsmann era. The first was in a trio of friendly losses to Colombia (H), the Republic of Ireland (A), and Chile (H). Another three game losing streak started with the insipid loss to Brazil in New England followed by the Gold Cup Final loss to Mexico in extra time and the friendly to Costa Rica. Five of the six games are friendlies and all of the home games were against World Cup competition. The lone road game was a friendly against Ireland who was in the process of qualifying for the Euro.

Klinsmann said that he would increase the quality of competition and he has. That's an impressive lineup of games. Fans need to expect that there will be bad streaks when the quality of competition is increased. Outside of the Mexico game, none of these games mattered much and may have helped the players and the program.

First four-game home winless streak against CONCACAF opponents since LBJ was President

Sure, this sounds bad. This streak starts with the loss to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals, which resulted in my taking my son to the Jamaica Mexico final in Philadelphia. So if anyone should be mad it's me (although that game turned out to be a lot of fun as my son still loves the sombrero gifted to him by the row of Mexican fans next to us, but I digress). That loss was followed by the pointless 3rd place loss to Panama, and then the aforementioned losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. This is a pretty bad run, but two of them were following difficult losses and the team clearly didn't care. Could you point the finger at Klinsmann for that?  You might if you were cynical but the players are putting on the United States uniform and should have given a better effort, regardless of the coach.

Failed to qualify for the Confederations Cup, which he listed as a "top priority"

We've been through this series of games - a bad run to be sure. There are rumors this will be the last Confederations Cup, which shows how little value the tournament actually has in the world of soccer. I'll need to bring this up a few times but Klinsmann also said he wanted to get to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario, and he did. He said he wanted to get out of the Group of Death in Brazil, and he did. You can't cherry pick which goals we hold up scrutiny.

His hand-picked coaches missed back-to-back Olympics, first time that's happened in half a century

The United States has actually missed three of the last four Olympics, so we weren't exactly on a tear before Klinsmann's selections took over. Qualification is a bit of a crap shoot as it eventually comes down to winning in the semifinal of the tournament. Win and you're in. Lose and you've got to play three more to get in. Last year the U.S. cruised through the group stage only to be stopped in that semifinal match by Honduras. After continuing on with a win against Canada, the U.S. was completely overmatched in their play-in against Colombia. Miraculously they gave fans hope by playing a gutsy tie before falling short in the end. The most recent Olympic qualification showcased a collection of good performances undone by a single game.

He failed to beat a top ten team in 6 tries (0-5-1)

Perhaps a little unlucky that his wins against Italy, Germany and the Netherlands occurred when they were outside the top ten?

He has the worst PPG vs. top 20 teams of any coach since Gansler.

Here's where I begin my rant on these comparisons across time and where I really feel the United States could be falling behind. One concept that doesn't seem to be part of our consciousness is that other countries are dramatically improving their football. They are getting better at player development, coaching, tactics, etc. They are doing so aggressively. Check out Das Reboot by Raphael Honigstein and you'll see that the work that led to Germany winning the 2014 World Cup started as early as 1998. This is a long process. If you want to start placing blame on the talent the United States is showing on the pitch start looking at Sunil Gulati, who's ultimately accountable for developing the game and has been in charge longer than Klinsmann. Has the US, on our soil,  developed a single world class creative midfielder since Claudio Reyna?

I don't know that the US, despite its population and resources, is developing talent any more efficiently than other countries which makes me wary of comparing coaches across generations. We may be losing ground but you can't blame someone in charge for five years for that.

His team's loss to Jamaica in 2012 was the first USMNT loss to them, ever

His team's loss to Jamaica in 2015 was the first USMNT loss to them, ever, at home

His team's loss to Guatemala in 2016 was the first loss to them since the Reagan Administration

These are terrible, I admit. But let's hold onto these losses for a minute.

Guatemala in 2016 was the lowest-ranked team to ever beat the US in the history of the FIFA rankings, and beat the US with 2 players going 90 minutes who are in MLS and had not even gotten onto a match roster a single time at that point in the season

The Guatemala match occurred on March 25th, just a few weeks into the MLS season. Guatemala, for whatever reason, has been a tough place for the U.S. historically. They've won just once in Guatemala in World Cup qualifying back through the 90s and drawn the rest. Let's also remember the US outscored Guatemala 8-0 in their other two contests in 2016.

He started Brad Davis in a crucial game at the World Cup

This is the best argument on the list.

Two years later, he started Chris Wondolowski in the semifinals of the Copa America

This is a close second.

His teams have been outshot by 292-169 in the last tournaments + CONCACAF CUP

Anyone who follows the USMNT knows that Klinsmann isn't about shots. He's about the quality of those shots. Forget the tournaments, let's include those friendlies and CONCACAF minnows and look at this entire cycle. Since the World Cup in Brazil the USMNT has been outshot 555-484. It's not a bad thing because they actually turn that stat around when looking at shots on target. Over those games the US has 212 shots on target compared to 187 for their opponents. Further, they've finished 40% of those shots on target compared to just a 29% clip by their opponents. The bottom line is the US has a +30 goal differential this cycle because they are more selective with their shots and look for quality over quantity. Shot ratio doesn't matter to Jurgen.

BUT if you wanted to look at shot ratio lets go back to those tragic losses to Jamaica and Guatemala. The US outshot their opponents in those three losses 39-30, so how important is the total shot advantage?

2014 featured both the lowest possession percentage and the fewest shots per game of any US World Cup team for which stats exist

Anyone calling themselves an MLSist should know that possession is an entirely meaningless stat, especially in MLS. Possession means nothing in MLS and if Leicester City (44.8% possession in the Premier League last year) and Portugal in the Euro taught us anything last year, it's that things can go quite well without the ball.

Fewest shots of any team in the Gold Cup group stage

See above. They got through, right?

Started the hexagonal 0-2 for the first time in history

The US had never extracted less than three points in their first two hex games. Now they have.

Lost consecutive World Cup qualifiers for the first time since 2001

Everyone agreed this was an extremely tough early draw. No one expected anything but a loss in San Jose and the Mexican team is the best team in CONCACAF right now. Mexico clearly has more talent and are finally well coached. It's disappointing but understandable the US lost to Mexico at home, despite the history.

Trotted out a 3-5-2 in arguably the most important game of the hex despite having nearly no competitive experience using it

To me this is the most convincing argument against Klinsmann, but it goes beyond this single decision. While his move to a more reactive style of play, and therefore less possession, is the right decision he still tinkers too much tactically and the team just doesn't spend enough time together to work through the nuances. He needs to stick to a reactive style and stick to it for the sake of continuity from one break to the next. This is a major flaw that seems to continually lead to under-performance.

Lost to Mexico in MAPFRE stadium for the first time in history

He's won there too, but this Mexico team is rolling now.

Allowed the most goals to Costa Rica in a single match in the history of the rivalry

The 4-0 loss was the worst USMNT loss in qualifying since 1957

Lost multiple competitive matches by four goals for the first time since 1957

1957 was a bad year, apparently. The defensive lapses against Argentina and Costa Rica were terrible, no doubt, but against Costa Rica the US was hanging together (barely) for over two thirds of the match and a draw was not out of reach. Once that second goal scored the US committed a high defensive line which is exactly what Costa Rica wants at home. Sure it was ugly but the US pressed on and paid the price. Let's not overreact.

Last thoughts

While the US soccer majority is cheering and relishing in the negative press, we also need to remember some positives. Klinsmann took the team farther than expected in the tournaments that matter, the World Cup and Copa America. He also won a Gold Cup in 2013 after the US failed to win the prior two tournaments.

Klinsmann continues to recruit talent where players have choices between countries. Imagine this weak talent pool without those additions. Imagine if Christian Pulisic had chosen Croatia. Outside of those additions you can't put the American talent pool and his five years in charge on trial. As disappointing as this sounds, Klinsmann has dramatically increased the talent pool, perhaps more than any other coach would be able to.

Klinsmann's selections of players and tactics run hot and cold, but this is just another cold streak. He's proven time and time again that he can pull the right strings when everyone's back is to the wall. We can't always make sense of his decisions but he's progressed when it counts. He deserves the chance to take the team to Russia.