Photo: Daniel Studio
After an historically bad start to the Hex, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired on Monday. Just a day after he was quoted as being “very comfortable” with his job security prospects, Klinsmann is out, and US Soccer looks poised to ask Bruce Arena to step in and right a listing ship.
Was it the right move?
Klinsmann did a lot of good things during his tenure. He beat some very big teams, like Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands, not to mention Mexico, in their home stadiums. His overall winning percentage is quite good, comparing well to most other US managers throughout history (his win percentage is second only to Arena among coaches with significant numbers of games). He expanded the player pool.
But it’s hard to escape the sense that when the games counted, Klinsmann’s US teams were not up to snuff. Aside from the remarkable win in Azteca, those games against the world’s best came in friendlies, which don’t count for more than pride, and the US played down to lesser competition alarmingly often. MLSsoccer.com’s Matthew Doyle compiled some damning stats:
- First four-game home winless streak against CONCACAF opponents since 1965
- First loss to a Caribbean opponent in World Cup qualifying since 1969
- First loss to Jamaica, ever
- First home loss to Jamaica, ever
- First time US U-17 team missed the Youth World Cup
- First loss to Guatemala since 1988 — a Guatemala team that was the lowest-ranked squad to beat the US in the history of the FIFA Rankings
- First US coach in 25 years to fail to record a single win in official competition against a Top 10 side
- Worst record vs. Top 20 sides in official competition than any of his four predecessors
Here’s Pablo Maurer’s expanded list:
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) November 16, 2016
And this barely touches on Klinsmann’s strange distaste for individual players who would manifestly help the program, not least of which being Landon Donovan, his apparent lack of interest in the technical/tactical side of the game (at least its instruction), and his willingness to deflect blame onto his players at every opportunity.
But what about his work as technical director? Some, myself included, have argued in the past that even if Klinsmann weren’t the right coach, his work as technical director should continue. But what evidence do we have that that work has been good? His expanding of the player pool has been almost exclusively through the introduction of dual-nationals. While that is not a bad thing—to the contrary, it’s a wonderful development that needs to continue, regardless of who’s in charge—the youth setup in the US isn’t bearing much fruit, except the rotten kind: two straight missed Olympics and that missed Youth World Cup mentioned above. Christian Pulisic, the best homegrown player the US has seen in a very long time, can’t be put down to anything Klinsmann has done.
So, in short, yes, this was the right move. I have long been a US Soccer and Klinsmann apologist, but beginning with leaving Donovan home for the World Cup, all the way up to losing in humiliating fashion at Costa Rica, it’s clear things weren’t working. Klinsmann’s appointment held real promise, but those promises were never truly fulfilled. He needed to go.
Was it the right time?
It was now or never. The next game is not until March, and there’s a January camp that suddenly takes on a whole lot of extra meaning, but gives the coach a chance for an extended look at the players available. That may mean guys like Keegan Rosenberry have to wait a bit longer for their shot while the next coach kicks the tires on the players with national team experience, but from a strategic standpoint, waiting had no upside. If Klinsmann had won the next game, the argument for removing him is weakened, and if he’d lost it, there would have been no time for a replacement to bed in—lose-lose.
If reports are to be believed, then Bruce Arena will take over, perhaps as early as this afternoon’s US Soccer teleconference. He is a strong choice, if not the most exciting one. He is a coach, first and foremost, who knows how to credibly assess his players and put them in positions to succeed, something Klinsmann frequently struggled with, and to properly game plan and manage in-game situations. It seems to me very likely the US could reel off a string of victories and secure qualification from the Hex with games to spare with him at the helm. Beyond that, can he grow the program?
The reason Arena lost the job way back in 2006 was that the team plateaued. He’s certainly grown since then, as has the world game, and the players are all different now, so it’s impossible to say what the long-term picture will look like. His club-level success in that time is undeniable, and includes utilizing players from superstar to water carrier, which bodes well. But his negative comments about dual-national players are troubling, and have no place in US soccer culture, even if the thinking behind them makes a certain kind of naive sense. (To be clear, of course we want our national team players to bleed for the team, but there’s no reason to think that foreign-born players don’t or can’t have that commitment—nobody ever questioned Earnie Stewart’s commitment to the team—or that simply being born here gives it to one automatically.) As Matthew De George pointed out, all those German-and-other-Americans will still be here after Klinsmann, and many of them deserve it, like Fabian Johnson, Aron Johannsson, John Brooks (his terrible performance against Costa Rica aside, he needs to be in the picture), and more. For Arena to ignore them would be no better, if not worse, than Klinsmann refusing to call in the likes of Benny Feilhaber or, until recently, Sacha Kljestan. More than that, it would be self-defeating, as more good players in the pool makes the team better, full stop. On the other side of the coin, of course, is the hope that Arena will expand the player pool in other directions, perhaps looking domestically at players like LA Galaxy’s own Sebastian Lletget or former Portland man Jorge Villafana (now playing for Santos Laguna in Liga MX).
Arena’s isn’t a name that is going to electrify the fan base the way a certain German superstar did five years ago, either. He’s no Marcelo Bielsa, for better or worse. There are other names that might deserve more thought, too. Our own/Philly Voice’s Kevin Kinkead has been beating the Oscar Pareja drum pretty loudly, for instance, and Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, and others have been mentioned as possibilities. But Arena is probably the right choice for now. How long he remains in charge is unknown, and may depend as much on what he wants as on what the team does on the field or what US Soccer wants. Maybe he comes in, gets the US to the next stage of qualifying, or through the World Cup, then walks away, leaving the big question of how to substantially grow the program to the next guy.
Suffice it to say that the USMNT needed a change. Change has come. US Soccer needs to prove that the struggles really were down to Klinsmann and not a wider cultural problem. Sunil Gulati will want to skirt blame here, but he can’t. Klinsmann was his man from the beginning, and everything Klinsmann did he was empowered to do by Gulati. If the next coach—be it Arena or anyone else—can’t get things back on the right track, those winds of change might just blow up to the top of the tree and take Gulati away, too.