A full-blown coaching crisis. I’ve been waiting so long. Never in my lifetime has there been this much scrutiny on a United States head coach, yet after Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Mexico, the United States have an undeniable soccer “crisis” on their hands. The team’s not progressing. Fans are pissed off. Is this what it’s like to be an Arsenal fan?
Still, there’s a stale feeling to it all. Sharpened pitchforks. The same, unrelenting voices only amplified after Saturday’s result, drowning out the more nuanced tones that sound genuine alarm. The tactics? Klinsmann (and, most who follow Tuca Ferretti) seemed unprepared for Mexico’s three-front. Responses? Gyasi Zardes, the obvious sacrificial lamb for the first adjustment, was left out for far too long, and more could have been done (quicker) to shake up a stagnant front two.
But after Saturday’s final, the whys and hows became irrelevant. The pitchforks are back, stirring a conversation that’s never been a fair one on either side. Those initial, persisting criticisms of Klinsmann still hit a jingoistic note, sometimes from those defensive about the idea of a foreign coach being brought in to revolutionize US soccer. Subsequent criticism held Klinsmann to the letter of his words (more technical play, positive tactics, a deeper and better player pool) as if they were easily achievable goals, as if a desire to change how players are groomed can effect change in one cycle. Instead of measured critiques that considered the obstacles, detractors became Antonin Scalias, holding Klinsmann to a literal, immediate interpretation of his words.
For his part, Klinsmann has often come across as arrogant and aloof, his jabs at Major League Soccer and US fan culture providing a callus target that’s too easy to detest. MLS, so crucial to maintaining the talent pool at hand, has been the constant target of his criticism, be it for its level of play, allegedly short seasons, or the training players get while with their clubs. And fans? Well, they don’t understand, quite yet, because the United States isn’t a full matured soccer culture. But won’t worry, all. Our new, cultured stepdad will surely get us there, some day.
The most annoying part about our new dad, though, is that sometimes he’s right. Take the player pool, for example. Looking at where players are playing and what they’re accomplishing at club level, this is one of the weakest player pools over the last 21 years. With the exception of Fabian Johnson, a player who was not reared by this country’s development system, there are no US men’s national team members playing in UEFA Champions League. The comfy stock of Premier League players we had a few years ago? Now we have Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan, neither of whom is performing at the levels of in-their-primes Clint Dempsey and Brad Friedel.
Perhaps we’re in a moment where the US’s Champions League-caliber players just happen to be choosing MLS. Maybe it’s cyclical — or, more accurately, varying — and players like Gedion Zelalem and DeAndre Yedlin will lead the player pool into a brave new tomorrow. More likely, this moment defines a more uncertain transition, where the old Champions League-caliber players (Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan) are phasing out before a younger group shows it can take over.
Unfortunately for Klinsmann, that diminished state has hoisted him on his own petard, portraying him as an all-talk, no-product politician who’s about to being found out. Oh, we have so many problems, and I can fix them. Really, Jurgen? How? Well, you see, I have this track record, so just trust me, because I know how it’s done in the rest of the world. Yet four years into the job, there’s no reason for trust.
Klinsmann has a program-best winning percentage. He got the US out of a tough group in Brazil and has registered a number of notable friendly wins. He can rightly claimed to have done slightly more than Bob Bradley, but certainly not enough to meaningfully separate the two, let alone trumpet progress. And if the reason for that lack of progress is the dwindling pool you inherited, fine, but where are your solutions? US soccer fans are dying to know.
Even if Klinsmann has been proven correct about the US’s development problems, he’s been shown dramatically wrong about something else. Over the years, he’s hinted US fans don’t put the same pressure on coaches that you see in other countries. Yet here we are, 48 hours after the most meaningful result of his tenure, and Klinsmann may be the least-popular national team coach of our lifetimes. That we won’t see a coaching change despite those indictments is bringing U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati under fire. That unsophisticated fan base which can’t ratchet up pressure is suddenly sophisticated enough to see beyond one man’s results.
This is the world Klinsmann has made. He’s prodded, goaded and antagonized fans and players long enough. And he hasn’t delivered. He’s trolled fans so often and on some many levels that they’ve become as vocal as those stereotyped fans from abroad. And in time, that level of scrutiny he drew out of fans may cost him his job.
If Klinsmann is looking for signs of progress, this is it. The results on the field may not be getting better, but US soccer fans are stepping up to his challenge. It’s not just pitchforks anymore. They’ve been joined by pragmatics and the patient fans who once held hop.
Where there was once a divide, there’s a growing unity. More and more, rightly or wrongly, most fans want him gone.
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