On Tuesday, the United States Soccer Federation made the announcement that Jürgen Klinsmann would be relieved of his duties as head coach and technical director of the United States Men’s National Team. Bruce Arena, currently head coach of Major League Soccer club L.A. Galaxy, was named his successor. This will be the second stint for Arena, who coached the USMNT from 1998-2006.
Klinsmann came onto the scene with a bang after being named head coach on July 29, 2011. He led the USMNT to top of the CONCACAF table in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. During his tenure the team had wins in friendlies over FIFA powerhouses Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands. In the 2014 World Cup, the team had surprising success after finishing second in the proclaimed “Group of Death” comprised of the Unites States, Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. They went on to lose to Belgium in the first round of the knockout stage.
After the 2014 World Cup is when things started to slip for Klinsmann. He was unable to build on his relative success in subsequent tournaments, losing to Jamaica in the semifinal of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and losing to Argentina in the semifinal of the 2015 Copa América. After making it the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Klinsmann’s squad lost their first two matches. They were beat by Mexico 2-1 in Columbus, OH and thumped by Costa Rica 4-0 at their national stadium.
At that point most of the national papers seemed to be calling for Klinsmann’s head, to which Klinsmann had a condescending answer, they “don’t understand soccer or the team.”
Klinsmann was able to do some good things in his tenure. He was able to open up a pipeline of American-German talent thanks to a large contingent of German children with American fathers who serve at Ramstein Air Force Base and other United States Armed Forces bases in Germany. Many other countries use the influence of their country over other nations to load up their national teams with talent, so it was refreshing to finally see the coach of the United States Men’s National Team take a similar approach. Klinsmann’s efforts brought national team fixtures such as midfielder Jermaine Jones, wing defender Fabian Johnson, wing defender Timmy Chandler, center back John Brooks, as well as many other regular role players1.
One of the main criticisms of Jürgen Klinsmann, however, was that he is not much of a tactician. His formations and substitutions in the first two games of the final round of CONCACAF 2018 World Cup qualifying left a lot to be desired and his teams rarely seemed to be prepared for how their opponent planned to dictate style of play. If I were to pull an equivalent from the NFL, it would be similar to a team being determined to run every play with the quarterback under center regardless of what the defense threw at them. You can have an offensive and defensive identity, but you don’t want your game plan to be static and Klinsmann showed little knack for making those kinds of corrections on the fly.
Bruce Arena comes into the head coaching gig as a retread. His hiring may remind many Cleveland fans of Dan Gilbert’s second hiring of Mike Brown.
This was a coach who had some success, but many believed it was more due to the talent he was coaching than anything he was able to do from a tactical standpoint. He coached the USMNT to a successful quarterfinals appearance in the 2002 World Cup, but also coached the team to a first round exit in the 2006 World Cup.
What his hiring tells me is that the United States Soccer Federation is looking for a steady hand on the wheel. The team has amassed zero points in the first two games of the final qualifying round, and they are looking at an uphill battle to secure a spot at the 2018 World Cup. They couldn’t afford another misstep. Arena will have about two months to get his plan together and train with the players before the next couple games are played. He’s the kind of coach who can rally the team around one another and get them on the same page. The results might not be spectacular, but they also shouldn’t be disappointing and maybe that is enough for now.
The United States boasts more talent than they had in Arena’s first tenure. 19 year old wunderkind Christian Pulisic is already a star at one of the best soccer clubs in the world, Borussia Dortmund. There is generational talent like Darlington Nagbe and American-German Julian Green who just need time and nourishment to develop. Midfielder Michael Bradley is in his prime and being considered by big name soccer clubs like AC Milan. Tim Howard continues to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world. There is enough talent on the team for Bruce Arena to not only steady the ship, but show the United States Soccer Federation that he is the one to set its course and navigate the rough waters ahead into the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
- Forward Terrence Boyd, forward Julian Green, and midfielder Danny Williams to name a few. [↩]