Just two days after Bob Bradley’s USA side was knocked out of the 2010 World Cup in heartbreaking fashion by Ghana, US Soccer President Sunil Gulati was asked how he felt about the team’s tournament run.
He answered, “I think the team is capable of more. I think the players know it. I think Bob knows it. And so at that level we’re disappointed we didn’t get to play another 90 minutes at least.”
He would go on to talk about his extreme disappointment in the campaign, and make Bradley’s job status a loud, open question for months to come.
For the president of the federation to bludgeon a team that had just played some of the most thrilling soccer in the history of the country and call its coach’s future into question was beyond irregular – it was unprecedented.
Sure enough, Gulati spent the next handful of months chasing his favorite son. Not for the first time, either. Gulati’s infatuation with Jurgen Klinsmann is about to run into its tenth year, and it’s been nothing short of embarrassing.
After the 2006 World Cup, Gulati paralyzed the entire national team program for six months while he tried to land Klinsmann to replace Bruce Arena. The proposed deal broke down due to Klinsmann’s increasingly ridiculous demands, and Gulati didn’t have a plan B.
Thankfully, Bradley, who was appointed as the interim manager, did well enough to lock down the job full-time.
But Bradley was always US Soccer’s second choice, and no matter how well he did at the World Cup, Gulati was always going to take another run at Klinsmann. He struck out once again, but never really stopped negotiating, and he finally landed his man soon after Bradley lost the 2011 Gold Cup final against Mexico.
Bradley always faced the pressure of needing results to keep his job. He often got them, too, winning a Gold Cup, making a Confederations Cup Final, winning the Hexagonal, and advancing in the World Cup.
His post-USA coaching career has only enhanced his status as one of the finest and most admirable managers this country has ever produced.
The pressure Bradley faced as US coach hasn’t applied to his successor.
Ironically enough, Gulati’s warm embrace has ensured that Klinsmann doesn’t have to face the kind of accountability he demands from his players. The year 2015 has made that abundantly clear.
Lose a Gold Cup semifinal to Jamaica? No problem. Miss out – again – on qualifying for the Olympics? Don’t sweat it. Get dominated by Mexico and fail to reach the Confederations Cup? No need to worry.
Morten Olsen will retire from his job as Denmark’s national team coach after sixteen years after next summer’s European Championships in France. Outside of Olsen – a beloved Danish player and enormously respected coach – it’s hardly a stretch to say that Klinsmann has the most job security in major international soccer.
Landon Donovan’s comment that any other coach in the world would be fired if he lost to Mexico in Klinsmann’s position wasn’t even remotely controversial. It’s simply the truth. Most coaches in the world don’t have full immunity from consequences like Klinsmann does.
But we know now what we didn’t know then. Klinsmann is a good salesman and an incompetent manager, under whom the US has regressed stylistically back to the 1990s and made no long-term development strides below the senior national team level.
Klinsmann, from how he regards MLS, to his condescension of American fans, to the way he talks about attitude and fitness, and, most tellingly, the way he sets up his team, clearly has no faith in American players or the American soccer culture to compete with the world’s best.
That’s been clear from the beginning. Klinsmann promised to change the culture, but instead he’s just blamed it for all of his failures. The man can’t coach. After more than four years, that’s become obvious to almost every member of the media and a large segment of the fan base.
The only man who can’t see reality is the man in charge.
The US’ game against Mexico was eerily familiar. After a year of experimentation, Klinsmann’s team was nearly identical to the one that played at the World Cup in Brazil, and they played the same way: Sitting back, absorbing pressure, battling, and eventually coming up short.
Excuses, of course, are also a signature part of Klinsmann’s game-plan, and he trotted out a dandy after the match on Saturday night when he blamed the Gold Cup referees for the US’ defeat.
But there is no point in being mad at the manager anymore. We know exactly what we’re getting with him. But it’s perfectly reasonable to demand more from Gulati, who appears to be one of the last men in the country still hypnotized by the promise of Klinsmann.
Anyone who knows will tell you Klinsmann’s job won’t even be under review unless the US is in real, palpable danger of not qualifying for the World Cup. Short of the player revival that certainly isn’t coming – something Klinsmann can thank the US culture he so despises for – the German will be around through the World Cup in Russia.
The absurdity of the situation – the coach who lives to get players out of their comfort zone is left firmly ensconced in his – is almost comedic.
Chances are Gulati isn’t going anywhere either. He ran unopposed in his last two elections at US Soccer, and his appointment to the FIFA Executive Committee makes him one of the more powerful men in world soccer.
Gulati hasn’t truly distinguished himself either way with that power – he supported Sepp Blatter until last year – but his position, plus the success of the US Women’s Team ensures that there continues to be little appetite to challenge the sitting President.
And therein lies the US Soccer conundrum at this moment. As long as Gulati is in power, so is Klinsmann.
With the dual losses to Honduras in Olympic qualifying and to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, some talked about Saturday as one of the darkest days in US Soccer history. Maybe it was one of our darkest days. But on this path, there is worse yet to come.
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