To quote John Oliver, “Look up into the sky right now. Higher. No, higher still. Do you see that? Way up there. Way up above the clouds. That’s rock bottom. And we are currently way down here.”
It’s been a rough week.
Jurgen Klinsmann has claimed repeatedly that setbacks are a natural consequence of ambition. They’re part of the “learning curve.” And he’s right. When you’re hired to influence culture from the ground up—when you’re expected to set new, more ambitious standards—there has to be some leeway. This project launched in the summer of 2011, in effect a partnership between Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, always was going to swerve into a road block or two.
But after five years, four major tournaments and several crises and false starts, Klinsmann careened off the cliff this week. It wasn’t simply that the U.S. lost a pair of World Cup qualifiers. The road to Russia is wide and long, and hosting Mexico and playing at Costa Rica were, as both Gulati and Klinsmann have pointed out, two of the toughest matches on the 10-game schedule. Rather, it was the clear capitulation and troubling regression evident in the defeats.
One year ago, the U.S. was coming off a fourth-place finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup—pretty much every other coach on the planet would have been fired or resigned following an equivalent result—and a loss to Mexico in the ensuing Confederations Cup playoff. It was clear a recalibration was needed. While trying to catch up to soccer’s elite and while trying to build a team of fitter, more focused players, Klinsmann lost track of his own backyard.
Here’s an excerpt of a column written in November 2015 as World Cup qualification kicked off:
Individual improvement has come at the expense of collective consistency. This remains a team without an obvious tactical identity, which makes it more difficult to adjust to the revolving rosters national team coaches have to handle. Camps are short and games come fast. Without an immediate or preliminary understanding of the plan or approach, a player probably is less likely to succeed. Add to that the fact that Klinsmann desires tactical flexibility and often deploys players in new positions, and the result is a team that’s still, after four years, trying to find itself….
Now is Klinsmann’s chance to show his coaching chops. He’s famous for his big ideas, limitless ambition and comfort in speaking truth to power. Those are all qualities from which U.S. soccer can benefit. But questions remain concerning his ability to fashion a team that can gel and win on the day. He’s asked the tough questions. He’s challenged his players and the establishment and shown us the ideal. Now, with 2018 on the horizon, he has to aim closer to home. He must build a consistent and repeatable tactical foundation that makes the most of his players’ strengths and permits the group to approach given games with more certainty. He must figure out who and what works, stick with it and then make it better. Give the players a short-term plan to believe in. Put the U.S. back on the road to regional dominance.
For a time, Klinsmann showed signs of doing just that. There was a more humane January camp. The outcry that followed the March loss to Guatemala, which was the lowest-ranked team to ever defeat the U.S, was quieted by a 4-0 win a few days later in Columbus.
Klinsmann had been feeling a bit of heat and said, “I’ve never put anybody out of his position and I want to make that clear … Every time we get then our FIFA fixture dates, we got to bring them together and get them in the right direction, get them on the same page and hopefully get positive results. I am cool with that. I let people say what they would like to say. It’s all right with me. Here and there, you wish some comments could be a little bit more respectful. But it is what it is.”
Get them on the same page, indeed. Klinsmann established continuity during the Copa América, starting the same lineup in consecutive games and sticking with a 4-4-2 from the second group-stage match through the bronze-medal game. The 4-0 semifinal loss to Argentina was ugly, but the Americans were crippled by suspensions and the opponent was world-class. It happens.
Klinsmann stressed the importance of that continuity heading toward this fall’s qualifiers—trying to keep his back four reasonably intact, pulling captain Michael Bradley back into a more holding/defensive role and relying on either the 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. Meanwhile, he tinkered in the manner a national team coach should, by calling up a deserving player in a position of need—midfielder Sacha Kljestan. Christian Pulisic was brought along smartly.
Then he blew it up.
Deploying a 3-5-2 last week against Mexico—a formation the U.S. hadn’t played since a January 2015 friendly—was coaching malpractice. It returned the squad to the uncomfortable days of late 2012-early 2013, when abrupt tactical and personnel changes left players feeling unprepared and uncertain. On Tuesday in Costa Rica, the men who’d played outside back all summer, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin, were elsewhere. Matt Besler, a center back, was on the left. John Brooks, perhaps the squad’s MVP at the Copa, had his worst game in a U.S. shirt. It just so happens that nightmare came four days after Klinsmann publicly blamed the defender for Mexico’s winning goal in Columbus.
The back four was torn to shreds by Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Klinsmann refused to bring out an obviously fatigued and ineffective Jermaine Jones, who went 90 minutes for the second time in five days after not doing it for four months. The manager’s faith in Jones, Johnson and Timmy Chandler was misplaced, and the collective surrender by the U.S. in the second half in San Jose was like nothing we’ve seen from an American side.
The players understand. Klinsmann is going to Klinsmann.
“[We weren’t good enough] in terms of understanding what the game was going to be about, in terms of knowing how we needed to play in a game that had so much on the line,” Bradley told reporters in San Jose. It echoed comments he made in Columbus regarding the Americans’ lack of “clear ideas.”
Bradley and Jones were Klinsmann’s targets following the Mexico loss. Klinsmann’s tendency to single out players following a defeat was getting increasing attention and during the summer, Gulati said it was something he’d speak about with the coach.
Here’s what Bradley had to say Tuesday: “There’s a need to support each other. In moments like this, it does you no good to point fingers, to be looking around trying to figure out who you can throw under the bus. That’s not how it works and that’s not what real teams are all about.”
He didn't mention Klinsmann by name. He didn’t have to.
U.S. Soccer in 2016: USMNT and USWNT year in photos
Five years in, we know who Klinsmann is. There is no more mystery. The trajectory during the remainder of his tenure, whether it’s another two days or another two years, isn’t going to change. The U.S. will not be a top-10 team in 2018. Klinsmann is an idealist. He’s never satisfied. There can always be more. It can always be better. The impulse to try new things and push his players to do the same isn’t going to go away. His belief that players are the sole architects of their success—that context, circumstances, coaching, tactics and other external factors are distractions or excuses—isn’t going to go away. He is who he is. Recent results, the swing between confidence and chaos, the climb and then the plunge—that’s just how it’s going to be.
What we don’t know is how Gulati will respond. The president has been sending slightly mixed messages since he awarded Klinsmann a contract extension six months before the 2014 World Cup. During the Copa, Gulati said, “No one has ironclad job security.”
Before the Mexico game, he said, “We have never changed coaches in the Hex … and I expect that to be the case here.”
Following the loss in Costa Rica, he said, “When you lose two games, there’s obviously some concern. But Mexico qualified [for 2014] with 11 points. There’s a lot of points left on the board, 24 to be exact. As I’ve said the last two cycles, the sequence of games matters a lot … I’d be more concerned if we didn’t have any points and it was some of the other opponents.”
From this day forward, the fate of the national team program rests on Gulati’s shoulders and reflects Gulati’s priorities. He’s an economist and inclined to see the bigger picture. It’s about wins and losses, but also about potential replacements, contracts, budgets, media pressure, sponsors, ratings, attendance, marketing, player development, his interest in re-election in two years, etc.
It’s about the massive project Klinsmann took on in 2011, his promotion to technical director two years later and Gulati’s faith that any of that is salvageable. It’s about whether he thinks it can be done at all. It's about short-term sacrifice and long-term gain. Would Gulati accept that the man he hand-picked, to whom he’s paid so much money and devoted such significant resources, is no longer right for the job? Perhaps he shares Klinsmann's idealism. Perhaps the rest of us don't have the insight to understand where this all is going to lead. Is this an image or ego issue? Like Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton trying to maneuver through the Arctic ice, could Gulati come to a point where he’s ready to give up and turn around?
Klinsmann said in Costa Rica he still believes he’s the right guy. This past week is just one more road block on the path to the 2018 World Cup semis. Can Gulati be convinced? Does he want to be convinced? The coach’s tenure has been about pushing the envelope and testing his players’ limits. It’s up to Gulati to decide whether those limits have been reached. The president must determine whether his original vision is worth the roller coaster, not to mention the narrowing margin for error in the Hex. He must decide whether he wants to take the financial hit that firing Klinsmann would necessitate. He must consider his own legacy. He must define rock bottom.
We know what there is to know about Kinsmann. We’re about to learn a whole lot more about Gulati.