US Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was fired yesterday evening, confirming speculation that his job was in trouble. The USMNT lost to both Costa Rica (4-0) and Mexico (2-1) in 2018 World Cup qualifying matches this month, which has put the US in an uphill battle to earn a spot in Russia.
Let’s take a look at Klinsmann’s US soccer career, what ultimately led to his firing (beyond recent losses), and where the future of US soccer is headed.
A Glance at Klinsmann’s US Career
On the surface, Klinsmann’s overall body of work with the USMNT has to be lauded. He produced a 55-27-16 record, and led this team out of the “Group of Death” in the 2014 World Cup and into the Round of 16.
His job was praised by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati after the firing.
“Many are aware of the historic victories, including leading us out of the Group of Death to the Round of 16 in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but there were also lesser publicized efforts behind the scenes,” Gulati told the press. “He challenged everyone in the U.S. Soccer community to think about things in new ways, and thanks to his efforts we have grown as an organization and expect there will be benefits from his work for years to come.”
Despite the highs of Klinsmann’s 5-year tenure, Gulati and others within US soccer felt that it was time to look at other options.
“While we remain confident that we have quality players to help us advance to Russia 2018, the form and growth of the team up to this point left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction,” he said. “With the next qualifying match in late March, we have several months to refocus the group and determine the best way forward to ensure a successful journey to qualify for our eighth-consecutive World Cup.”
Klinsmann had been on Gulati’s radar for quite some time, but contract talks broke down in 2006. This allowed Bob Bradley to take over the position, which he held until 2011, when the team lost to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final.
This was all the reason Gulati needed to hire his guy the same year, giving Klinsmann both the USMNT coach and development director positions. The German-born coach quickly seized control of the opportunity, implementing sweeping changes to make this average US squad more like the high-powered Germany.
He also made bold moves such as cutting team captain Carlos Bocanegra right before a World Cup qualifier, cutting Landon Donovan before the 2014 World Cup, adding blood testing, running players though 3-a-day practices, and banning soda.
The moves were newsworthy, but they didn’t produce a superpower team. Klinsmann did just well enough to get a contract extension in late 2013, and this seemed validated when he took the US to the Round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup, where they battled Belgium into extra time. But a closer look at the performance showed that America got outplayed in three out of four matches.
The US had become nothing more than a defensive team that relied on the occasional counter to pull out 1-0, 2-1, or 1-1 matches. Nowhere was this more evident than when the 2015 Gold Cup, where they finished an embarrassing fourth place after losing to Panama on penalty kicks. They also lost a playoff to Mexico for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, which was yet another blow to the team.
The one redeeming thing about Klinsmann’s latest performance was a deep run in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, where they made it to the final four after beating a tough Ecuador team. They lost to both Argentina in the semifinals and Columbia in the third-place match, but it was still looked at as a success.
However, it wasn’t so much of a success that US soccer could ignore a draw to New Zealand in October, and losses to Mexico and Costa Rica this month.
Why Was Klinsmann Fired?
While Klinsmann accepted criticism for the team’s performance, he was quick to question the heart of the players too.
“There is always things that you say you could have done differently,” said Klinsmann. “It doesn’t matter about the system, it is about the compactness of the team. The willingness to fight back — and after the second goal they didn’t have that power or drive to get back in the game. It is a very bitter moment. They were too flay, not enough alertness there, not enough tempo.”
For starters, he questioned the MLS and how it prepares players for the rigors of international play. And while this might be true to a degree, it also alienated some of the same players whom Klinsmann looked to when filling out his squad.
Another problem was the odd coaching strategies he used at times. One example was the recent Mexico match, where he employed a 3-5-2 formation that the team hadn’t used up to this point. Given the magnitude of a game against their closest rivals, this didn’t seem like the best time to try a new formation.
Klinsmann also struggled with his dual role of being both the coach and US developmental director. It seems like he would’ve been better suited to just coach, rather than also working on developing America’s youth soccer movement too.
Most importantly, the 52-year-old failed to make a dramatic change from the Bob Bradley era, which is what he was brought in to do in the first place. Instead, the USMNT is producing around the same level of results as Bradley did 5 years ago.
The Future of US Soccer
The future of the USMNT doesn’t seem much different from the past because Bruce Arena has been hired to coach the team.
Fired in 2006, Arena holds the distinction of being the only coach to take the US to two World Cups (2002 and ’06). He also won 71 international games, which is more than any other American.
“When we considered the possible candidates to take over the men’s national team at this time, Bruce was at the top of the list,” Gulati said. “His experience at the international level, understanding of the requirements needed to lead a team through World Cup qualifying and proven ability to build a successful team were all aspects we felt were vital for the next coach. We all know Bruce will be fully committed to preparing the players for the next eight qualifying games and earning a berth to an eighth straight FIFA World Cup in Russia.”
Some may believe that hiring Arena is a mistake since he’s a retread from the past. But one must also consider that he produced outstanding results with his L.A. Galaxy teams, developing a fast, attacking style that the Americans could benefit from.
Perhaps more importantly, he has close ties to the MLS and can repair this relationship after Klinsmann’s tenure. The US starts playing qualifiers again in March, which gives Arena some time to implement his style and get this team on the path to Russia 2018.