The last time that the United States lost in Gold Cup was four years ago against Mexico in the final. It was enough to cost Bob Bradley his job and now that the Americans have fallen in the tournament again, this time to Jamaica in the semifinals, there are people questioning whether Jurgen Klinsmann should meet the same fate that his predecessor did in 2011.
It makes complete sense to question Klinsmann and his status. Sunil Gulati will undoubtedly field the same question before long. But it's not fair to compare Bradley and Klinsmann.
Bradley was charged with winning matches and trophies. That is all he was judged on and that was the entire mandate put before him. So when they lost in the 2011 Gold Cup final -- especially considering Mexico looked so good and many thought they were primed to dominate CONCACAF -- he had failed and didn't look ready to turn the team around.
Klinsmann is obviously asked to win matches too and that is his primary concern, but that is not all that he has to do. He is also U.S. Soccer's technical director, asked to change the way the team plays, develops players and unearths talent. To evaluate him and the work he is doing is much more complicated than doing so with Bradley.
Losing in the Gold Cup semifinals, not to mention their lackluster play in the matches earlier in the competition, is an unmitigated failure. The U.S., and Klinsmann, did not deliver the results one would expect from the U.S. in a tournament it has so long dominated and which Klinsmann called the team's priority in 2015. But whereas Bradley generally played his best players throughout competitions and did everything in his power to win them, Klinsmann didn't do the same.
It was clear throughout the Gold Cup that Ventura Alvarado was playing as much for experience as anything else. Klinsmann swapped out more than half of his team from the tournament's first match to the second match and sent Jozy Altidore home to send a message as much as anything else. This Gold Cup wasn't a case of Klinsmann going all-out to win it, but a competition he was trying to win with a longer view in mind. His job, and mandate almost requires that.
Klinsmann can't just try to win the next match in front of him all the time. There are times when he may need to do that, and there are times when he will have to, but that won't be every match and not even every competitive match. That alone makes it complicated to evaluate him as a manager.
To widen the scope, any decision to fire Klinsmann has to take into account his work as technical director. He's done a very good job recruiting dual national players and there has been an uptick in the performance of youth national teams of late, but his teams often eschew young talents like Juan Agudelo and Perry Kitchen in favor of veterans like Alan Gordon, Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman. As for the style of play, that's still as much of a roller coaster as ever, with beautiful play in friendlies often followed up by ugly soccer in competitions and even huge differences in quality within matches.
So how do you evaluate Klinsmann? It's undoubtedly difficult, but complicating matters more is that nobody has set a standard for Klinsmann or even seems to be the man he answers to.
Normally, questions about a manager after a bad result would go the technical director, but Klinsmann serves both roles. Maybe the man to ask is Gulati, seeing as he is U.S. Soccer's president, but he isn't made available with regularity and there's reason to believe that he isn't solely responsible for decisions on people like Klinsmann. Moreover, we have no idea who else might be involved. There is very little known about the federation's decision makers, structure and why things are operating the way they are, let alone what the alternatives are.
Going well beyond that, even getting an idea for what Klinsmann wants and expects is a guessing game. While he said that the Gold Cup was his priority this year, his lineups and comments during the tournament didn't indicate that was the case at all. He's indicated that he wants competition, but has relished the uncommon job security that he has had since the day he was hired. Even the notion of pressure and discussion, something he has said that is vital to the country's growth as a soccer nation, has been dismissed when pointed his way as just the musings of an uninformed and uneducated media.
All we know is that Klinsmann expects to make the quarterfinals at the 2018 World Cup. But is it really fair to judge an entire seven-year tenure based on five matches? And if the team falls short in Russia then who also takes the fall for letting seven years be defined by five matches?
Should Klinsmann get fired? Maybe, or maybe not. It shouldn't be in a straight comparison with Bradley, and if it was then he'd have gotten the axe the minute the referee blew for fulltime against Jamaica.
The next step isn't to question Klinsmann's job status, but to ascertain how to evaluate Klinsmann. That means Klinsmann laying out clear benchmarks and expectations or, in absence of that, taking part in real conversations with the media and not simply putting forth a Q&A on USSoccer.com where he's asking himself questions It also means U.S. Soccer establishing who Klinsmann answers to, as well as what they want to see from the national team.
The U.S. manager's job should be under constant evaluation and Klinsmann is not exempt from that. But that starts with figuring out how to evaluate the man, and right now that's nearly impossible.