Are the USA treading water under Klinsmann?
In March 2013 the knives were out for Jürgen Klinsmann, fewer than two years after he had been appointed as manager of the United States national team. One month earlier, USA had put in an insipid performance in a 2-1 defeat at Honduras in the opening match of the six-team final stage of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. An expose penned by Brian Straus appeared in Sporting News, alleging serious discontent amongst players with Klinsmann’s personnel decisions, tactical acumen, and overall leadership. Straus took exception with the decision to start unproven players such as Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson in the cauldron of heat, humidity, and hostility that is San Pedro Sula’s Estadio Olmpico Metropolitano. Furthermore, Straus saw the turgid performance in Honduras as indicative of the lack of attractive free-flowing football and tactical cohesion under Klinsmann.
Four defeats from Klinsmann’s first six friendlies were followed by gritty victories on the road in Mexico and Italy, results won through the typical counterattacking American style rather than the more progressive and expansive style espoused by the new manager. Meanwhile, the four-team third round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying had turned into an unnecessary slog, a defeat in Jamaica and a last-gasp victory against Antigua and Barbuda causing concern. With Straus’ article appearing in the buildup to a home match against Costa Rica followed by a trip to arch-rival Mexico’s fearsome Estadio Azteca four days later, USA faced the very realistic possibility of having three points or fewer after the first third of the “hexagonal.”A crisis never materialized, as USA defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in the snow in Denver before battling to only their second competitive point in Mexico. A mostly reserve squad cantered to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title, and World Cup qualification was clinched with two matches to spare by virtue of the customary “Dos a Cero” against Mexico in Columbus. In Brazil, USA emerged from the Group of Death before succumbing to Belgium in the round of 16.
In many ways, the beginning of Klinsmann’s second world cup cycle has mirrored his first. 2 wins in 9 friendlies after the World Cup were followed by victories against Mexico, Netherlands, and Germany. However, a tepid showing in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup was punctuated by a 2-1 semifinal defeat to Jamaica, a result that set up an October 10th showdown with Mexico in Los Angeles to determine who would represent CONCACAF in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Criticism of Klinsmann following the Jamaica result was scathing, with many pundits finding similar faults to Straus’ now infamous 2013 article. Former USA star Landon Donovan called for Klinsmann to be sacked should his team suffer defeat in Los Angeles, a match won 3-2 by Mexico courtesy of a brilliant Paul Aguilar volley in the 119th minute. While some of the criticism against Klinsmann is warranted, the German has done a solid if unspectacular job of progressing US Soccer during his four years in charge, and deserves the opportunity to lead the USA through 2018 despite Saturday’s setback.
Straus and other pundits have been correct to condemn some of Klinsmann’s personnel decisions as mystifying. 21-year old center half Ventura Alvarado looked out of his depth in the 2015 Gold Cup, and Timmy Chandler remains an unconvincing option at right back despite his Bundesliga pedigree. Playing Michael Bradley as a number 10 in the World Cup was an unsuccessful experiment, and a major gap remains in the center of midfield alongside the Toronto FC star with neither Jermaine Jones nor Kyle Beckermann a viable long-term option. The omission of Donovan from the World Cup squad may have been a mistake given the team’s struggle to retain possession following Jozy Altidore’s injury after 25 minutes of the opening group match against Ghana.
However, Klinsmann’s critics neglect to mention that he has made the most of the established stars, emerging talents, and unexpected assets at his disposal. Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard have been immense throughout Klinsmann’s tenure. Fabian Johnson has been a constant menace whether played in midfield or defense, and Geoff Cameron’s versatility has allowed him to excel as both a fullback and central midfielder. Alejandro Bedoya’s selection used to elicit groans from fans, but Klinsmann has utilized him as a tireless runner with a flash of creativity in the final third. Jermaine Jones has been transformed from a disciplinary liability into an almost talismanic box-to-box midfielder, a change encapsulated by his fantastic strike against Portugal in Manaus. Klinsmann has coaxed strong performances out of average MLS players such as Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, who had two assists in Brazil. Exciting youngsters such as DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Julian Green, and more recently Gyasi Zardes have been effectively blooded into the first team.
Critics of Klinsmann’s tactics argue that the German’s promises of attractive, free-flowing, possession-based football have largely gone unfulfilled. Indeed, USA’s tactics for much of the Ghana match as well as the defeats against Germany and Belgium were reactive and defensive, highlighting an inability to impose their style of play on strong opposition. Klinsmann has yet to settle on a standard formation, alternating between a 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-2-3-1, and a somewhat baffling 3-5-2. USA’s poor showing in the 2015 Gold Cup was characterized by slow, unthreatening possession, a theme representative of a struggle to break down weaker sides set out to frustrate. Yet Klinsmann’s sides have also entertained in important competitive fixtures. A vibrant first half-hour against Ghana should have seen USA 2-0 up before Altidore’s injury disrupted what was arguably the best run of form of the Klinsmann era. Yes, that may sound silly to Sunderland fans, but Jozy’s ability to hold the ball up in an aggressive 4-2-3-1 allowed Dempsey, Johnson, Bradley, Bedoya, and Donovan to menace opposing defenses during the qualification run-in and pre-world cup friendlies.
Even after a disastrous mistake by Cameron gifted Portugal a 1-0 lead inside 5 minutes, Klinsmann’s decision to push Jermaine Jones ahead of Beckerman and closer to Bradley in more of a 4-1-4-1 allowed the USA to control the ball in a match where the tropical conditions made possession crucial. Only a last-gasp equalizer from Silvestre Varela prevented the Americans from a second consecutive win to start the group of death. Although USA were outplayed against Germany and battered by Belgium for the better part of 105 minutes, the manner in which they attacked the Belgians in the final 15 minutes of extra time stood in stark contrast to the meek capitulation at the same stage of the 2010 World Cup against Ghana. Overall, the 2014 World Cup represents the strongest indication of the progress achieved under Klinsmann. In 2010, Bob Bradley’s side barely emerged from the easiest group in the competition before playing poorly in a very winnable round of 16 defeat against Ghana. Klinsmann’s team played well to get out of the most difficult group in Brazil before performing credibly in a round of 16 defeat against one of the dark horses to win the tournament.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect about judging Klinsmann is that a substantial part of his mandate revolves around revolutionizing US soccer’s youth development. Ten years ago there was no academy system in the US, and the expensive “pay to play” club system prevented many poorer American children from even participating in the country’s best development programs, perhaps an area of debate for another day. Klinsmann has continued to improve and standardize US training methods from senior to youth levels with the goal of improving the overall quality of the player pool and ingraining a specific style of play across the entire federation. The results thus far have been mixed. The U-20 national team reached the quarter finals of the 2015 World Cup, led by promising youngsters such as Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem, Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, Fulham’s Emerson Hyndman, and Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Palmer-Brown. However, the U-23 squad fell to Honduras only a few hours before the senior team’s defeat to Mexico, and now must defeat Canada and Columbia to qualify for the Olympics in 2016. Most detractors of Klinsmann’s handling of the senior squad recognise the importance of the technical director aspect of his job, but are divided on whether development for the future should supersede results in the present. In the end, the importance of Klinsmann’s technical director role may preclude an accurate assessment of his tenure until 2022 or 2026, by which time he will have likely returned to flying helicopters up and down the California coast.
While disappointing, Saturday’s loss to Mexico hardly represented the apocalyptic do-or-die fixture that many in the media were hyping it up to be. Despite their first loss to Mexico under Klinsmann, USA are in a better place at this point in the World Cup cycle than they were four years ago, when the gap between Mexico and the USA seemed insurmountable and appeared to be growing. A trip to the Confederations Cup in 2017 would have been nice, but there is no evidence to suggest that it would have led to a stronger performance in 2018. Although his personnel and tactical decision making has been far from perfect, Klinsmann has improved the results and performances of the US national and youth teams, while revolutionizing the US Soccer federation from the ground up, much as he did in his native Germany from 2004-2006. Barring a disastrous start to World Cup Qualifying, he has earned the opportunity to finish his mandate and see out the end of his contract in 2018.
By Daniel Schulwolf.
Dan lives in Boston and has been monitoring Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign closely since 2011. You can follow Dan on Twitter: @Dan_Schulwolf.