Here is the very definition of irony: Jurgen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan share a common piece of real estate in domestic soccer.
Donovan once stood as American soccer’s most divisive figure. He was either a blue ribbon talent who faithfully served his country’s World Cup efforts for more a decade while propping up the cause for a fledgling MLS, or he was a soft underachiever who took the easy route, never fulfilling top potential by leaning harder into European soccer. (That one always smelled like a small-minded sentiment.)
Don’t get stuck replaying that worn out vinyl. The point is, most fans fell squarely into one camp or the other: faithful supporter, or unyielding detractor.
Now that Donovan has retired, it seems that Klinsmann, the increasingly embattled US men’s national team manager, has inherited the perch as the most polarizing US soccer figure. (If you know the duo’s bitter back story, then you know they would find it difficult to share an Uber ride, much less any real estate within the American soccer scene.)
The roiling debate over Klinsmann, just into his fifth year as the United States national team manager, could reach a boiling point by late Saturday evening. The United States meets Mexico inside Pasadena’s historic Rose Bowl – site of countless American football classics in addition to a men’s World Cup final and a Women’s World Cup final. One of these bitter border rivals will come away with CONCACAF’s berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia.
Some also see Pasadena as the potential site for Klinsmann’s waterloo, although his cushy contract situation most likely renders debate over his job status moot. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati has supported his hand-picked manager at pretty much every turn, advocating the long game even after the summer’s klutzy Gold Cup stumble.
There really is a Klinsi case to be made either way:
On the one hand, Klinsmann has seemed to advance the bigger US Soccer cause, even if the seeds of his plan have yet to reap full cultivation. Klinsmann is a bigger thinker, and most of his achievement has been at macro level, dislodging players and the establishment from comfort zones, attempting to modernize approaches, always with an eye toward the only competition that truly matters in world soccer, the FIFA World Cup. If he tinkers a lot … well, yeah, he’s supposed to. Right about now, in fact.
Again, we can all bloviate and bluster until the grass fed cows come home about friendlies and Gold Cups and even Saturday’s artificially pumped up CONCACAF Cup (pretty much a made-up name for a made-up event). But not much that happens beyond World Cup qualifying and the globe’s most high profile sporting event itself really matters in the final Klinsmann job review, does it?
At micro level, Klinsmann can point to a tidy little collection of impressive results in friendlies, and his 2014 World Cup bunch slipped past a first round group that was mean as razor wire. Along the way, Klinsmann has advocated a tough approach to scheduling friendlies and, aside from a slippery relationship with accountability, has stood out front in welcoming pressure for himself and his players.
That’s the argument in a nutshell for Klinsmann admirers. The manifesto from anti-Klinsmann types looks something like this:
Results have proven inconclusive, and more stylistic progress was expected, at very least. The more dynamic game he promised (higher pressure, faster tempo, less reactive) has never quite materialized. Yes, getting past a brutal first round group in Brazil represented accomplishment, but only Super Tim Howard stood between the United States and a globally televised Belgian ass whupping in the knockout round.
The United States went flat from there, possibly due to constant tinkering that sometimes seems to lack structure or a broader definition. Then came the 2015 Gold Cup fiasco, when a tournament Klinsmann himself identified early and often as highly critical sank into the crapper.
For most American soccer fans, fourth place (never mind the significant advantage of playing the whole thing at home) was tantamount to being lined up and kicked squarely in the front of the pants. A subsequent win over Peru was bit of healing balm that was quickly washed away when Brazil ran up, down and around a meek US response in a 4-1 buzzkill.
As if the blah-blah-blah over Klinsmann needed additional accelerant, Donovan spoke up earlier this week. In some corners, this was the bitter sentiment from a man famously jettisoned by Klinsmann on World Cup 2014 eve. Then again, ESPNC FC did ask Donovan the question. Not only is he entitled to his opinion, it’s an opinion shared by plenty.
In the sit-down with ESPN FC, Donovan said:
“Around the world, if a player plays poorly and a player has a bad string of results, they get dropped from the team. 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.”
No truth to the rumor that he dropped the mic and walked away.
The upshot on Klinsmann probably falls in that great in-between. (Sorry, but this fence is made for sitting – at least for now.) Yes, Klinsmann tinkers away like a mad scientist, and his choices do sometimes look counterintuitive (or sometimes just plain odd.) Then again, quite a few of his quirky concoctions have yielded tasty teas.
Klinsmann’s real problem probably lies in the messaging. In a lot of ways, he brings the criticism on himself through an endless march of mixed messages, incomplete thoughts and too many opportunities missed to take the rap. Plus, he sometimes throws rocks at Major League Soccer. It’s OK if you agree with Klinsmann about the relative quality of MLS, but the league’s role in US Soccer’s progress can hardly be debated – not by anyone with a shred of common sense, at least.
Critics like to say he “plays favorites.” But that’s a silly argument when you think about it; every coach in every sport has “favorites” in that they prefer certain personnel attributes and tendencies, whether those be of physical, mental or tactical approach. The problem is that Klinsmann backs himself needlessly into corners when explanations and rationalizations begin to lose form or, at their worst, directly contradict last week’s.
Quite honestly, Klinsmann is a cheery fellow who wants to play nice, who seems to prefer that everyone likes him. Maybe he’d be better off with a little more Bruce Arena in him. The Galaxy and former US manager – truly, the dean of American soccer coaches – never bothers to explain himself. He just shrugs his shoulders indifferently if anyone dares to disagree.
The current US manager seems sure to keep his job no matter what happens Saturday. But a US loss will deepen the Klinsmann crisis. At very least, even those who don’t read any of this as “crisis” will likely be persuaded otherwise.
The blah-blah-blah over Klinsmann will go on either way; the balance of the camps, the Klinsi supporters versus the Klinsi detractors, will just shift a bit, one way or the other.
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