After every press conference to introduce a new manager through the years – and I’ve been to a bunch, mostly in soccer, but in other sports also – some fan or supporter, thrilled about the new program savior, would approach me afterward to ask eagerly: “Well, what do you think about the new guy?”
And I always had the same response, each and every time:
“Well, everyone has all the right answers at the introductory press conference. That’s the easy part. Let’s wait and see how they handle the first crisis – the first locker room malcontent, the first destabilizing run of injury to key players or the first run of losses. Then we’ll know.”
It was never the answer they wanted to hear – but that’s the deal. In a lot of ways, that’s when managers truly earn their pay; that’s where we get to the real nitty-gritty of their leadership skills, their ability to plot a new course when ill winds blow the vessel askew. Only then do we discover whether the coach has true grit and sufficient stores of self-confidence, unbending belief in what they are doing.
That moment is upon Jurgen Klinsmann.
Make no mistake, crashing out in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals represents a real crisis, the first actual trial of his four years in charge.
Oh, there have been a couple of hot potatoes here and there. The dance floor was getting a little unstable back in 2013 when the Sporting News story broke of creeping discontent in the ranks. But the Snow Clasico happened and then a draw at Azteca and all was well and swell again.
Landon Donovan’s notorious World Cup exile certainly stirred the pot. It became a strategic boo-boo the minute Jozy Altidore’s hamstring gave way, but the team escaped the Group stage, so World Cup 2014 was more or less “mission accomplished” anyway.
Those were little unplanned detours; this is the first real crossroads.
Previously, the man’s mad scientist tinkering tended to pay off. For instance, John Brooks and Julian Green seemed to be stretches for the World Cup roster, but we all applauded wildly at their goals last summer in Brazil. Point: Klinsmann!
Back in 2012 and 2013, the madding crowd wanted Jermaine Jones barred from the national team. But Klinsmann kept preaching his value, and eventually most supporters came to understand how the German-American’s steely fearlessness rubbed off on others. Point: Klinsmann!
Klinsmann once sent Altidore a big message, omitting the streaky striker from two important World Cup qualifiers in 2012. The result was a motivated Altidore soaring over the summer of 2013 for the national team.
He doesn’t deserve to lose his job over this.
Besides, it’s not like his team was completely overmatched Wednesday inside the Georgia Dome. Thanks to another industrious night from Alejandro Bedoya and a real captain’s response from Michael Bradley in the second half, the Americans halved the deficit, created more chances and pressed for the result. But the Jamaicans did enough, and credit to the Reggae Boyz to making Sunday’s final.
There is another side of that coin, however: the team never looked particularly impressive in the cushy group play stage; we wanted “commanding” but had to settle for “borderline capable.” When the powerhouse country gets the significant advantage of (always) hosting the tournament, the deck is stacked and nothing less than an appearance in the final, at very least, is acceptable. So the 2015 Gold Cup tournament is a failure and a major black eye on the Klinsmann regime, period.
Don’t forget, Bob Bradley was perhaps teetering after what everyone saw as “opportunity missed” in the 2010 World Cup, and when his team looked somewhat feeble against a relentless Mexican attack in the 2011 Gold Cup final, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati had seen enough. While it’s not really fair to say Bradley was fired for what happened in the 2011 Gold Cup, it probably is fair to see the event as a “last straw.” So if we’re connecting dots here, be sure to get the context right.
Either way, Klinsmann won’t lose his job here, nor should he. U.S. Soccer made the investment, and if the federation is going to lose patience at the first real crisis of every managerial regime, then pretty soon we are going to be Mexico. El Tri has had 11 managers in the last 15 years (if you include a couple of interim bosses along the way). The United States has had three during that time, as Bruce Arena, Bradley and Klinsmann have provided the kind of stability that El Tri never even approached.
So the calls to fire Klinsmann – plenty of them this morning – are premature. But … he does have problems that need addressing. And there are questions that need answering about the Gold Cup.
First, Klinsmann badly miscalculated on the center backs. He had something pretty good in Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, last year’s starting pair in the World Cup. But he wanted something better, so he wagered that Anthony Brooks and Ventura Alvarado had more potential upside – and fair enough there.
The problem, of course, was the developmental curve. And that’s where Klinsmann got it wrong. They simply weren’t good enough in tandem; Klinsmann would have been better to pick one or the other and then station them alongside one of the veterans, tutoring the youngsters more and bringing them up to speed more deliberately at the international level.
Or just go with Besler (who wasn’t even named to the team) and Gonzalez in the elimination rounds; then Brooks wouldn’t have been in there to issue that meek challenge on Darren Mattocks on Wednesday’s opening goal.
Klinsmann also miscalculated on what Gyasi Zardes could deliver at his less-optimum spot along the wing. Zardes ended the tournament the same way he started it (in a close win over Honduras), looking lost out there and unable to contribute anything substantial to the attack.
And when will Klinsmann land on a basic formation (or two) and stick with it? This year alone we’ve seen 3-5-2, 4-4-2 with flat midfields 4-4-2 with a diamond in the middle and a 4-2-3-1.
Bradley is the team’s best player, and he is best as a connector between a holding man and a creator. Anyone else out there want to see Klinsmann build around Bradley and his best role?
Timothy Chandler? Most of us just shake our heads at this one, unable to come up anything close to an explanation.
These are discussion points, but not troubling issues so long as the team is progressing and winning its share. Perhaps the team isn’t progressing sufficiently under Klinsmann, in your opinion. But given the wins and results, U.S. Soccer could previously make a case, at least, that it was.
Not this morning. Not after last night’s distressing misadventure.
Now the pressure is on. Another stumble and Klinsmann’s position will be quite tenuous. How things come together now will reveal so, so much.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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