Deep breaths, everyone. Manager Jürgen Klinsmann and the U.S. men’s national soccer team averted the team’s quadrennial World Cup qualifying crisis with an authoritative 4–0 victory over Guatemala on Tuesday night, four days after losing 2–0 in Guatemala City.
There was panic on the streets of Twitter. The U.S. was third in its four-team group halfway through the round, and only the top two advance to the final six-team qualification tournament, which features teams a lot better than Guatemala. Had the U.S. lost Tuesday, it would have essentially been eliminated from the 2018 World Cup, needing St. Vincent and the Grenadines—which is 0–4 this cycle and has been outscored by 16 goals—to win at Guatemala to have any chance to advance. Before Tuesday’s game in Columbus, Ohio, a plane circled the stadium trailing a “Fire Klinsmann” banner.
After Friday’s dispiriting loss, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a half-dozen Klinsmann-hating pilots competing for airspace. Playing away games in Central America is always difficult, but Guatemala had been the exception to that rule. Last week’s match marked the first U.S. loss to la Azul y Blanco, home or away, since 1988. The U.S. looked totally moribund, outclassed by a team that’s No. 95 in the FIFA rankings. By one measure, the 2–0 defeat was the worst suffered by any team worldwide since Brazil’s 7–1 beatdown against Germany in the 2014 World Cup. It was that bad. Even worse, it wasn’t an outlier, and a 4–0 home victory against Guatemala shouldn’t do much to change the mood.
Last year, Klinsmann’s team finished fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, then lost to Mexico in a one-off match for the right to go to the 2017 Confederations Cup. It hasn’t beaten an opponent in the top 70 of FIFA’s world rankings in a competitive match in its past eight tries.
By all measures, it’s been a terrible year. If you’ve been listening to Klinsmann, though, you’d think the U.S. national team has never been better. Asked for his thoughts on that Mexico loss—an enormous blown opportunity that cost the U.S. a chance to play in a major international tournament—Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website, “For the players, for us, and I hope also for the fans it was enormously exciting. I talked to a lot of people afterwards who said they have never experienced anything like that, so it was definitely a huge game to remember for all of us.” Hooray!
This kind of relentless optimism has always been an important part of Klinsmann’s rah-rah public persona. But what once read as encouraging now appears delusional.
An international soccer campaign is a lot like a political one. Though there are a huge number of events, very few of them have any significance. Since the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. national team has played 29 matches, winning 14, losing nine, and drawing six. Just 11 of those have been competitive, nonfriendly games, and I’d classify only four of those 11—the Gold Cup semifinal against Jamaica, the Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico, and road World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala—as important matches that the U.S. had a realistic chance to lose. The national team lost three of them, salvaging a solitary draw against Trinidad.
When you’re facing World Cup elimination at the hands of Guatemala, a friendly victory over Germany last summer means about as much as the Iowa straw poll. The limited number of inflection points—four in just less than two years—creates the appearance of wild swings of momentum. The space between those points—and the U.S. won’t play again until the end of May—is filled with bluster and speculation and spin.
Nobody blusters and spins like Klinsmann. He told reporters before the Guatemala rematch that he wasn’t playing anyone out of position, though it’s common knowledge that he does this all the time. (When U.S. Soccer tweeted a photo Monday of Klinsmann talking to 17-year-old Next Big Thing midfielder Christian Pulisic, the mentions filled with jokes on whether he was being asked to play goalkeeper or left back.) By NBC Sports’ count, in Friday’s match Klinsmann started four different players at somewhere other than their best spots. That’s denial Monty Python’s Black Knight would have to applaud, were he able.
Klinsmann’s hardly the only coach to lie in the wake of a big defeat, but his brazenness has been escalating. In an interview last September with the Washington Post’s Steven Goff, he blamed the referees for his team’s loss to Jamaica in the Gold Cup—the first home loss to a Caribbean nation since 1968—then hit back at his critics: “Do they understand really what happened in the Gold Cup? Some of them absolutely do and a lot of people don’t. I take it, it’s not a big deal. But it also explains we have a long way to go to educate people on the game of soccer still in this country.”
This is Klinsmann the partisan hack: thrilling to the true believers, who believe they’re the only ones who see soccer from the proper (European) perspective, but infuriating to his opposition. It’s not a big deal, but if you disagree with me, you’re an idiot.
There’s been a lot to disagree with during Klinsmann’s tenure: his antipathy for Major League Soccer and Euro-centric boosterism, the players getting jerked around from position to position, that tiny little controversy where he left Landon Donovan off the World Cup squad.
All of this ties back to the foundational myth of the Klinsmann era, a claim during his introductory press conference that he would bring “a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it.” This, he told us, was how America should play, a formula he’d arrived at from “studying your culture.”
The parts of our culture that pay attention to soccer press conferences were all for this. The teams managed by Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, were built around defensive organization, counter-attacking, and set pieces. The next step in our national soccer evolution would be about possession and control of space.
Since then, Klinsmann’s proactive philosophy has been used as a cudgel by both his supporters and detractors. The few supporters left in comment sections and on Twitter parrot Klinsmann’s lines when they say he’s pushing players out of their comfort zones in an attempt to change American soccer culture and that any bumps encountered along the way are the result of those players failing to respond to that challenge.
But after 4½ years with Klinsmann at the top post, most of us are thinking that initial vision of proactive soccer has been a mirage. It’s not just the bunker-and-pray extra-time loss to Belgium in the World Cup that turned Tim Howard into the secretary of defense. The U.S. has been routinely outshot and outplayed by regional opponents with a fraction of our population and soccer infrastructure.
Klinsmann’s teams fail the eye test. They maintain possession well against teams that are happy to sit back and counter, but there’s very little sense of how to convert those possessions into chances. Defensive rotations are muddled. Attacking movement is stagnant. The team rarely looks greater than the sum of its parts.
Klinsmann’s supporters say it’s those parts that are disappointing, not their coach. They argue that the talent has fallen off, maybe because so much of it—Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and now Howard—has returned to MLS and that just because we say we’re an ascendant soccer nation doesn’t mean each crop of players will prove better than the last.
But if that’s true, then why isn’t Klinsmann making the best with what he has? Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, and other veterans of the 2002 World Cup team all told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl that they feel what’s missing from the team is a core group of players, anointed by the manager, that stays in the lineup consistently and sets the tone for the rest of the team. Some tinkering is fine, but to run experiments you need to establish a control group, a baseline that sets the bar for any comparisons.
Klinsmann’s predecessors changed their lineups too, but they also had a bunch of guys who were locked in to their positions. Bob Bradley depended on Donovan and Dempsey providing creativity from the flanks, a young Altidore learning his way up top, and consistent defensive presences such as Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo to anchor the backline. Bruce Arena had Reyna, McBride, Donovan, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, and defender Eddie Pope. Klinsmann has Michael Bradley, who has played in three different midfield roles, and the occasionally available, 34-year-old Jermaine Jones, who these days splits time between midfield and central defense.
Most of history’s greatest, most offensively minded teams reached their peaks after playing together for years. Hungary’s revolutionary Mighty Magyars, upset by the West Germans in the 1954 World Cup Final, drew players from the Hungarian Army’s club Honved, which conscripted the nation’s best talent. Johan Cruyff’s Dutch national team featured a nucleus of players who had won European Cups with Ajax. Spain’s winning 2010 side featured players almost exclusively from Barcelona and Real Madrid, with Villarreal’s Joan Capdevila as the lone outlier.
It would take a Klinsmann-caliber optimist to believe the United States could approach those great teams, which is why Klinsmann was hired in the first place. If he can’t turn his outlandish vision into reality, then only Klinsmann could think he’s still the best man for the job.