Analysis

The winds of change

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:

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.

What now?

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.

14 Comments

  1. Is there any reason Keegan shouldn’t get a call up for the Gold Cup this coming summer…and more playing time there than Jack did 4 years ago?

    • I think there’s a good chance of that, sure. But January is probably going to be more focused on current players than new ones, I’d imagine.

    • I’ll give you a few reasons why Keegan shouldn’t be called up. Not physical enough, doesn’t play fast enough, and consistently gets beat to the inside. Another reason why let him leave the Union if he is not likely to play. While I am not that big on Yedlin. Yedlin is still above Keegan in the pecking order if you ask me. However, Keegan is above Chandler in my order, but thats not saying much as I never want to see Chandler on the USMNT field period.

      • I saw the words physical and fast in your negatives towards Keegan.

        How very American. What a shame.

        Keegan reads the game faster than most and has the technical skills to get stuck in and defend one on one.

        I’d say right now he is a better defender than Yedlin even, solely because Keegan does NOT have elite speed to fall back on, yet still aquited himself wonderfully against great attacking talent in one on ones.

        • Sorry, but I disagree. Physical and fast is not just a quality in American players that coaches want. I’m not saying these are the only needed qualities these are some of the things that Keegan currently lacks in his game. Lets think of some of the best OB in the game Lahm, Alba, Pisczek, Darmian, carvajal, Ricardo Rodriquez, Marcelo, Juanfran, Alaba. All can be physical all have decent speed. You say that Keegan is a better one on one defender yet he got torched by the likes of Castillo, Mattocks, Villa, Giovinco, Piatti. He will have to handle players clearly better than these in the international level. I am not saying he can’t get there I am saying he is not ready for a call up yet. When he stops getting beat to the inside and learns to better organize himself on the defensive side of the ball than for me he gets a call up for a camp to see what he can handle. To me he may be as much as a year away.

  2. The problem with Jurgen Klinsman and the failing of him as manager, IMO speaks more to the failures of this country than him… in developing players not yet capable technically to adhere to any style other than bunker and counter. At times it was so alarmingly bad how poor off the ball movement was or how poor a first touch was or how poor a pass to the wrong foot was… these are supposed to be the BEST of the BEST and simply they are not good enough.
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    Klinsman made no bones about expecting the players to solve the problems on the field as a team. Whether right or wrong that was his belief and he coached to it. The idea a national team manager helps players get better is absurd… they either shine or wilt under the enormous pressure. They either raise their game or not. Display they have the skills or not.
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    My bone with Klinsman was the lineup tinkering, the marriage to certain players who’s game for whatever reason did not meet criteria and the unwillingness after the Gold Cup flame out to vet youth across the board, which I imagine would have salvaged his job if he came out back then and said, I think it is time to bring a new era into USNT soccer. Let us be patient let us focus on 2018 at which point these young players will have had many many times to grow accustomed to the demands of international soccer.
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    • My biggest issue with him was that it was never his fault and he never settled on a formation/style of play. You just can’t do that with the level of talent we have or the amount of time the national team players get with each other.

      • OneManWolfpack says:

        Agreed. JK was not there to teach. He was there to organize… find what works… and drill it home. Instead he seemed to tinker and change things every time something appeared to work. His formations and tactics were (to be polite) “questionable”. We have a lot of good young players who are growing. Arena should right the ship and qualify for that “little tournament in Russia”. After that… decide what direction to go. Oh and after 2018… please fire (or don’t re-elect or whatever mechanism is used) Gulati too. Thanks!

    • Since the World Cup, Klinsmann pretty much insisted on a midfield of Bradley, Jones and for a long time Kyle Beckerman in meaningful games. That’s who he insisted would be his play-makers. I think there are more creative and younger players available, but Klinsmann declined to use them. You can say what you will about Feilhaber, Kljestan and Nagbe talent-wise, but I think all were capable of doing a better job of creating scoring opportunities than the older players Klinsmann refused to give up on. That is squarely on his shoulders. Same with the keepers. Is Guzan really that much better than Bill Hamid? Yarborough? Maybe Klinsmann will prove to be right and the young guys aren’t up to the challenge. I’m sure we’ll find out come March.

  3. Klinsmann deserved to go awhile ago, and while Arena may be “uninspiring”, I think he’s a fine choice for now.
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    I saw somebody upset about Arena because “all he cares about are results, all he does is win but he doesn’t develop anybody or anything new.” Well, ya know what? At the international level, you play to win, and Arena did that better than any other recent USMNT manager. Would I like to see prettier football? Honestly, no. At the national level, all I want to see are results. Let club teams develop talent, the USMNT coach needs to utilize the best talent in the best way possible. And if that means bunker and playing gritty grit gritball, so be it. It’s what the US is good at, maybe better than any other country in the world. We don’t have the most skill, the most talent, the most creativity, but dammit if those guys don’t play hard, desperate ball when they need it most. I don’t want a coach that says “we need to go away from what works”. I want a coach that says “that’s our approach, and here’s how we’re going to maximize it.”
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    I’m probably in the minority, but let’s get back to Smashmouth Ameriball. I don’t know if Arena’s the long-term choice, but while other people may be more aspirational, I think that the best way to get better long-term is to win now, and I just don’t care how they do it.

    • I think I’m closer to this view then anything else. As others have said, the NT isn’t where players develop, it is where they show what they have. Selecting the best players, then putting them in systems they know and in which they are comfortable will bring results. Klinsmann too often made things too hard, and the result was too often less than the sum of its parts. Good players looked bad under him, Timmy Chandler being one example, John Brooks another.

      Style of play will improve as the pool does. Besides, playing composed athletic ball has its own beauty and style. Look at Atletico in Spain.

    • I just think it does not hurt to have a manager who atleast speaks for advacning the game here long term, and we are in a position where we probably NEED that.

      Yes, it is not his job. But we expect better, and the change needs to start somewhere. so why not at the top? For all his faults I loved that JK actually cared enough, and was passionate enough, about soccer here that he called out the issues he saw in the MLS and our youth development.

      I look at Arenas first reign (and bradleys) and see some nice wins, but I also see a totally stagant youth development system that those two either ignored or thought was doing fine. and yes, its not their jobs to care, but goddamn maybe we need someone to care and push for change.

  4. Shining or wilting, raising their game , skills or not , sounds like JK speak again. Its the players fault again. I dont have the type of players I like, he said plaintively.Woe is me.What can we do. It must be those lousy youth coaches, I guess.

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