The last time the public got to stick the thermometer into the Landon Donovan-Jürgen Klinsmann beef, we learned that the meat was still cooking. In a new interview, Donovan’s thoughts about Klinsmann’s shaky recent record and what that should mean for the manager’s job security show that yep, this beef is getting hotter.
ESPN FC talked to Donovan about the current standing of the USMNT. The main thrust of his response was in relation to the U.S.-Mexico one-off playoff match this Saturday, the winner of which gets a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
In Donovan’s mind, Klinsmann should be skating on the thinnest of ice right now, and a loss to Mexico on Saturday would be enough to break it. Citing one of Klinsmann’s favorite sayings, that he wants USMNT players to feel pressure when they don’t play well, Donovan thinks the same should hold true for the manager:
“Jurgen said many times he wants our players to feel pressure — so if they lose a game they can’t go to the grocery store the next day. If they lose a game, they are getting hammered in the press.
“Well, the same holds true for the coach, and so we had a very poor summer with bad results in the Gold Cup. The last game against Brazil was probably the worst game I’ve seen them play under Jurgen. The reality is that now, anywhere else in the world, if this coach had those results, and they lose this game against Mexico, they’d be fired.
“I think if Jurgen wants to hold all the players to that standard, then he has to be held to that standard too.”
On its face, Donovan’s comments are largely understandable. It’s long been a concern for hardcore USMNT fans that Klinsmann is seen more like a rock star deserving of praise simply because he deigned to take this job. He came into this job—and his other, even more important one as U.S. Soccer’s technical director—espousing lofty principles about expressive, attacking play and plans to revolutionize the country’s development structure in order to unearth and polish the hidden gems everyone assumes are buried all around.
At times, he hasn’t lived up to these ideals. Only rarely has the team played anything like the Spain or German teams Klinsmann says he wants to emulate, and these brief spells of effective possession and penetrative passing rarely occur in a game against a team on the USMNT’s level or above. The only promising young talents we’ve managed to find have come in the form of nationality-switching youngsters who learned the game abroad. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether Klinsmann has failed on both of his big aims.
On the other hand, it’s impossible to divorce Donovan’s statements from his history with Klinsmann. Like, say, that time Klinsmann had the opportunity to add to his 2014 World Cup roster the greatest American soccer player to ever live, who was a couple years past his prime but still certainly had a lot left to contribute, and instead said, “Hm, nah, let’s go with this German teen who’s basically never played a meaningful game in his life.” That decision had to be heartbreaking for Donovan, and clearly continues to color his opinions on Klinsmann.
Because when you step away from the legitimate nitpicks, Klinsmann has done a damn good job in his position. At that Donovan-less World Cup, the USMNT did put together a couple of the best matches anyone’s ever seen our boys play. That game against Portugal remains the best USMNT performance I’ve ever witnessed against a motivated top-class opponent, and the Round of 16 heartbreaker against Belgium—the one where that German teen came on as a sub and scored—was similarly great evidence of his team’s growth.
While Donovan points to recent results like the Gold Cup semifinal loss against Jamaica (which was legitimately bad) and the beatdown Brazil laid on them (whaddya expect, it’s Brazil), he conveniently forgets the exhilarating wins against the Netherlands and Germany back in June. Klinsmann has never been afraid to experiment with different lineups, formations, and untested, youth-heavy squad selections, prioritizing the search for something that clicks over repetitious, stodgy strategies that would surely grind out a couple more wins in the short term at the expense of long term development. And while it’s still way too early to see any obvious effects of what he’s been doing to improve how America grooms soccer players, he’s continued to criticize certain structural defects in our system that, if remedied, could go a long way towards that end, even when his remarks have proved unpopular with the powers that be.
Ultimately, Klinsmann was hired as an idea man. America could’ve gotten on fine along the trajectory we’ve been on since the 90s as the rough and rugged band of mediocre but dedicated players whose regular “overachievements” in international play are in the form of the odd World Cup Round of 16 qualification. Klinsmann was hired as a big-name coach who could make airy pronouncements about what the country needs to do to get a whole lot better, and for those statements to reverberate within our larger sports industrial complex. On the long path towards the kind of local clubs that produce international-quality players that the rest of the world’s soccer powers take for granted, Klinsmann was also supposed to galvanize attention with exciting play, the development of a couple younger guys, and hopefully deeper runs in World Cups. So from a more holistic view, Klinsmann’s time as USMNT boss has been a success, whether or not we qualify for a fairly meaningless set of 2017 friendlies.
I would hope that if Donovan really did have power over Klinsmann’s job, he would have a more circumspect view than the one he expressed above that I can’t help but feel is affected by his personal history with the man. And if Donovan learned anything from Klinsmann leaving him out of the World Cup, it should’ve been that you should only make controversial personnel decisions when you’re pretty sure you have a better replacement waiting in the wings.
Photo via Getty