We’ve been here before. Another disappointing USMNT loss, this time an especially egregious pants-shitting at Costa Rica, more tactical madness and puzzling formation choices, more hints of behind-the-scenes acrimony, and again, more calls for Jurgen Klinsmann’s job. None of that is new. What is different, though, is the feeling that Klinsmann might actually lose his job this time, and that it’s hard to argue that it wouldn’t be justified.
If you watched last night’s debacle, then you saw for yourself just how bad things have gotten. If not, read our recap, or any of the hundreds of others that all rightly decry the indefensible soccer on display. You’ll find many of the same flaws that have typified Klinsmann’s reign: a lack of coherent attacking structure; a defensive-mindedness that even then fails at nearly every aspect of defending; players playing out of position; legitimate questions about whether the players gave up on the manager; and most concerning, no appreciable growth or development from the players or the system that would auger well for a brighter future. Klinsmann simply isn’t very good at the actual managerial aspects of being a manager, and the evidence for his shortcomings were right there on display.
Again, though, none of this should be some big revelation to us, even if the combination of last week’s home loss against Mexico and the tenor of the Costa Rica beatdown mean we’ve reached the nadir of the Klinsmann era. The book’s been out on Klinsmann for a long time. But we’ve also known that the USMNT job is a unique one, one where, if the country is serious about maximizing its resources and becoming the soccer power it can be, tactical acumen and sound man management and even good results on the pitch are almost incidental criteria for judging success.
Under no circumstances could this under-talented (players like Matt Besler, Jozy Altidore, and Omar González, who just aren’t very good), under-challenged (the likes of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Sasha Kljestan, guys who gave up on Europe for the lower stakes of MLS), and under-experienced (Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, and Lynden Gooch, promising players that nevertheless aren’t quite there yet) group be magically transformed into world-beaters. Klinsmann has at times failed to get the best out of these guys, and for that he is rightfully on the brink of getting canned, but the talent on the roster as amassed today just isn’t all that great. We shouldn’t expect the USMNT to regularly beat Mexico, who have numerous players thriving at good clubs in Europe’s best leagues. It shouldn’t come as a shock that the U.S. lose to Costa Rica in Costa Rica, where we’ve only managed to eke out a draw once, and have never come home victorious. The manner of which the U.S. lost both of these matches is concerning, of course, and Klinsmann is definitely underachieving with the players he does have available, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the talent pool is puddle-deep.
So how does America get appreciably better as a soccer team? By getting better players, naturally. This has always been Klinsmann’s primary remit. He has overhauled the youth development infrastructure, taken pains to point out the structural inadequacies in our domestic leagues that disincentivize the kind of youth development and high-stakes competition that all of the great soccer nations take for granted, and scoured the globe looking for eligible players to infuse our short- and medium-term prospects with a jolt of talent in the form of dual nationals.
It’s on the big-picture front that the U.S. is most in need of a strong vision and power to effect change, and its there that Klinsmann has done most of his good work. This is why we’ve been content for so long to put up with the odd stinker of a performance. The negative aspects—and let’s not oversell it here, the team has looked quite good at times during his time as coach, and his 65 percent winning percentage is just a few ticks off Bruce Arena’s all-time best rate—of Klinsmann’s managing were overshadowed by the good parts in our minds, and as long as he was cobbling together enough good performances with his sort-of-bad squad to get the team qualified for tournaments, it was all to the good.
What changed after last night, then, is that it’s becoming increasingly possible that Klinsmann’s managerial methods might be hurting more than his meta-Soccer In America ideas are helping. You can’t keep a manager who the players don’t respect. There have been multiple incidents where Klinsmann has risked losing the locker room, be it because of his coaching or his criticism and treatment of certain big-name players, but he’s always been able to turn it around.
If U.S. Soccer believes that Klinsmann has lost the team’s respect for good this time, and that the bad displays on the pitch are in part reflective of this, then they’d be perfectly justified firing him. If they think the USMNT’s recurrent problems and the embarrassing losses those problems lead to are too much to live with, you couldn’t really argue with that justification to fire him, either. Klinsmann could very well lose his job in the coming days, and the decision to sack him would be no great tragedy. But would it be the best thing for U.S. Soccer?
Klinsmann has played an enormous role in stocking the cupboard with promising talent like Pulisic, Gooch, Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Julian Green, many of whom—alongside the U.S.’s best player, Fabian Johnson—quite possibly never would’ve suited up for the USMNT had Klinsmann not been so committed to seeking out dual nationals. (It’s also worth noting what Klinsmann’s presumptive successor, Bruce Arena—who himself was considered an uncreative, conservative U.S. coach with a penchant for playing guys out of position back when he had the gig—would mean for our mining of this rich vein of imported talent. Arena is on record echoing the Wambachian opinion that foreign-born players shouldn’t be on the pitch for the U.S.)
It would probably be best for all parties involved if Klinsmann could stay on with U.S. Soccer in his other job as technical director. There, he could focus all of his energies on the broad, structural things he actually has good ideas about. Remember, the measure of Klinsmann’s success is not whether this team is good enough to expect to handily beat Mexico at home and Costa Rica away, but whether it’s moving in the direction of being able to do so in the future.
That might be a hard sell for a guy like Klinsmann, though. If he wants to stay out there on the pitch for a little while longer before taking up a seat in the director’s boxes, he could probably waltz into a pretty solid Premier League job, since he remains pretty highly regarded in England because of his playing career there and his managerial stint with Germany and now the U.S. The English, you see, have a little different perspective on all this. They recognize that it’s no great shame for a manager to lose to Mexico and Costa Rica with a team full of Americans.