Coaching a national soccer team is a unique challenge in sports. Your talent pool is restricted by nationality. You must scout your players by watching them play with completely different teams. You must find a way to develop chemistry with your players in the brief time you can spend with them during international breaks and the run-ups to major tournaments. This all doesn’t even consider your players being coached by completely different individuals for the rest of their soccer lives. Beyond that, how can you judge the success of a team or a coach when your shot at a championship happens only once every four years?
Such was the challenge Jurgen Klinsmann accepted in 2011 when he became the coach and technical director of the United States Men’s National Team (or “USMNT”). In 2016, it became evident the U.S. Soccer federation felt Jurgen was not exactly up to that challenge.
Klinsmann came in with a great fanfare in 2011. To many US supporters he was a mythical figure, ready to take U.S. Soccer to the next level and finally have the team competing with the best in the world, and if everything went right, eventually winning the World Cup. But to do that he would need to take a team of aging mainstays and inject them with young talent while raising the ceiling of what the team could achieve.
Shortly after his arrival during a series of friendly matches and minor tournaments, Klinsmann brought in just about every US Soccer player who had ever appeared in a national team match. Through this audition process he produced a roster that successfully navigated the World Cup qualification process (in what is arguably a very easy region) and had the team go on a record 13-game winning streak.
Over his career, Klinsmann was able to find talent from around the world to boost his roster. He recruited several players with dual citizenship and convinced them they would be better off playing on the U.S. team than sitting on the bench in their respective countries. This brought in players like Julian Green, Aron Johannsson, and John Brooks.
Even as all this was happening, however, it was clear Klinsmann had some different ideas than the U.S. Soccer federation. He was criticized in the media for stating before the 2014 World Cup that the USMNT didn’t have a chance to win the tournament. This was something that everyone knew was true, but they didn’t think a coach should be saying it. And perhaps his most polarizing move of all, he left Landon Donovan—U.S. Soccer’s legendary figure; they’re No. 10—off of the 2014 World Cup roster.
Klinsmann also ruffled the feathers of team owners in Major League Soccer by suggesting his national team players would be better suited to train in higher quality leagues around the world instead of MLS. During his leadership he saw many players like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Clint Dempsey make high-dollar moves to MLS clubs some have argued have lowered their level of play in international competition.
There has long been a chicken-egg problem with the USMNT and MLS. Some say the MLS will never be a top level league until the U.S. wins a World Cup; others suggest until the MLS is a top level league, our country will never be able to develop the talent it needs through youth systems and team academies. Klinsmann leaned to the side of the former and he encouraged his players to play abroad. While there was no public dispute about this, there was obviously friction between some of his players and the head coach over this subject, most notably with his captain Michael Bradley.
Bradley had been in top form in the 2010 World Cup, when the team was coached by his father Bob Bradley. He had been playing his club soccer with Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany’s top league, and had moved to Aston Villa (Randy Lerner’s old team) in the English Premier League for half a season before heading to play in Italy’s Seria A. He settled at Roma and was a mainstay in their lineup until in 2014 he was transferred to Toronto FC of MLS.
The 2014 World Cup saw a major decline in Bradley’s play, and many blamed it on the lower level of competition the MLS provided. Even as the captain, there were many occasions where he and Klinsmann were not on the same page. Most notably the recent qualifying match against Mexico at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. In perhaps his most perplexing move of his career, Klinsmann opted to try a formation his team had never used in a match, doing so against a bitter rival in a qualifying situation. This plan backfired in beautiful fashion as his team looked unorganized and confused during much of the first half. At halftime he switched to a traditional 4-4-2 formation the team was used to and the team performed much better, equalizing before giving up a late goal to ultimately lose the match, 2-1.
This was, apparently, the final nail in Klinsmann’s coffin. Speculation had been brewing since the Mexico match and US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati met with Klinsmann and relieved him of his duties on November 21st. Going forward, Bruce Arena, who coached the USMNT to their best World Cup performance in 2002 when they reached the quarter-finals has been hired. Many suspect he is simply a “transition” manager who will guide the team through World Cup qualifying and the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and a new more long-term option will be found after that.
One thing is for certain: The level of talent that Arena has at his disposal is arguably far superior to what he had to work with in 2002. As this transition happens, however, it will be interesting to see how the players Klinsmann coaxed into the USMNT—many from Germany, by the way—will react to not just a new coach, but an American.
As many have noted, the CONCACAF region the US plays in is generally an easy one from which to qualify for the World Cup. There is still a very good chance the US will qualify for Russia 2018 even with the two losses suffered in their first two games. What one can’t predict at this stage, however, is how Arena will handle a very mixed group of players, some who clearly didn’t mesh with Klinsmann’s team concept and many who came to play in the US simply because of it.