The ambitious, erratic, controversial, variously thrilling and maddening tenure of Jurgen Klinsmann as USMNT manager is over, and no one can seriously argue that he didn’t earn his firing. Now we must look ahead, and wherever the U.S. goes from here, the destination needs to look more like where Klinsmann tried and failed to take us than where we’ve been before. And that’s a place no American manager can be trusted to deliver us.
Klinsmann was in many ways the perfect man to realize America’s latent soccer greatness. He saw the country’s promise, and the value of an enormous, sports-mad population already adept at producing the best athletes on the planet in practically every other athletic endeavor that was just starting to become serious about its efforts to translate that sporting dominance into soccer. He also saw the U.S.’s flaws, which he most famously laid out in his “upside-down pyramid” commentary immediately following the USMNT’s exit in the 2010 World Cup.
This was a man who really did (and does) get American soccer after over a decade of living here, who also had an intimate familiarity with the soccer culture and developmental system of one of the world’s greatest soccer nations, Germany. Klinsmann knew what it takes to produce world-class talents; knew the deep, structural reasons why America wasn’t doing so; and, maybe most importantly, had the power and temperament to begin effecting the necessary changes to get the U.S. away from the failed strategies of the past and closer to a greater future, even if this at times pissed people off.
Of course, all of this big-picture stuff has only a tenuous relationship to the actual winning of games for the USMNT as it exists today. Klinsmann repeatedly demonstrated that this front—the job of managing the senior national team from day to day, game to game—was not his forte. His meta-analysis of the flaws of the American soccer system, and his desire to raze it and erect one that more closely resembled the systems that have proven to develop top-quality players in its stead, was why he got the job of USMNT manager and, later, U.S. Soccer technical director. His inability to consistently get the best out of the players currently at his disposal is why he was justifiably fired.
The risk in firing Klinsmann, though, is the prospect that U.S. Soccer and the country as a whole might lose sight of the vision Klinsmann had for us. Klinsmann was the right kind of man to lead U.S. soccer; he just proved to be the wrong individual. For a successor, then, we need someone like Klinsmann: someone hopefully familiar with America’s specific set of circumstances but who remains firmly an outsider. At the very least, the next USMNT should not be another American.
This isn’t an idle concern, nor is it some reverse-jingoistic, anti-American sentiment; it’s merely a reflection of how the sport of soccer has progressed historically. As Jonathan Wilson’s brilliant book Inverting the Pyramid lays out, the history of soccer has always been about the cross-pollination of what were in their time new, revolutionary ideas (or of out-of-favor ideas from the past) from one coach or team or country to the next, where they would be tweaked and adopted to fit the new coach’s or team’s or country’s strengths and weaknesses, and then passed on to yet another coach/team/country, ad infinitum. Coaches and players learning the game in one place, taking—literally and figuratively—those techniques and processes somewhere else and improving upon them, and then having that product moved somewhere else is how the game works.
A big reason why Europe and South America are the class of the world is because both continents have so many soccer-crazed countries in very close proximity developing and implementing their own ideas for making better players and playing styles, then sharing these techniques with each other through competition. The flip side is that part of why America is so far behind the rest of the world in soccer is because of our both geographic and intellectual isolation from all of this experimentation and advancement. Couple that with an amateur sports model (pay-to-play youth development and the college system) that arose to serve the fundamentally different sports of football and basketball, and you can see why it’s so hard break the U.S. from the inertia of the status quo.
This is why the USMNT should never be coached by an American for the foreseeable future. Any realistic American coach—read: Bruce Arena or any of the fresher MLS faces in the discussion—will have emerged in the context of the crippled American soccer system, far away from the playing styles and tactics and development strategies of Europe and South America that the senior team will need to adopt. This isn’t to say that no American coach can be successful. It’s just that success of the level the U.S. needs—the kind Klinsmann aspired to but couldn’t actualize himself—will almost certainly only be achieved under the guidance of someone with first-hand experience with soccer at its highest levels.
U.S. Soccer essentially admitted that this was the case when they hired Klinsmann, and an optimist would hope that they haven’t lost sight of this reality. Arena is nobody’s idea of the perfect USMNT manager, but if U.S. Soccer’s logic is for a safe, known quantity to steady the ship in the short term by qualifying the team for the 2018 World Cup, and using that time to scout a European or South American manager with the right credentials to take over after that tournament, then that’s not so bad of a plan, even if the riskier, higher-upside play would be to look for a great candidate right now in the long lull between the next batch of World Cup qualifiers in March. But if the Arena hiring is a sign of U.S. Soccer pivoting away from Klinsmann’s brand of critically-minded leadership—one that was often publicly critical of MLS, the powerful league that nevertheless does much to hurt the progress of soccer in this country—then those of us who want to see a USMNT full of elite, European-quality players before we die should worry.
Klinsmann wasn’t the man to lead the U.S. to the promised land, but the place he tried to take us to must remain the one to which we’re aspiring to go. It would be a grave error to confuse Klinsmann’s failure with a general failure of the mission of making American soccer truly great, and it will take someone who has experienced real greatness to get us there.