In isolation, the U.S. national team’s two recent losses in World Cup qualifying would be a harsh justification for axing a manager. The 2-1 defeat to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, broke a streak of four consecutive 2-0 wins over El Tri in home qualifiers, but Mexico is too good a squad for the U.S. to go Dos a Cero ad infinitum. And sure, the Americans’ 4-0 loss in San Jose, Costa Rica was embarrassing, but the U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier on the road in Costa Rica.
But as has been the case throughout Jürgen Klinsmann’s five-year tenure, it’s the details of those losses that betrayed him, and it’s those details that made his firing on Monday overdue. In Columbus and in Costa Rica, the United States was outcoached and seemed underprepared, but that’s hardly new under Klinsmann. The team has suffered disappointing losses only to bounce back. What seems to have changed here is that U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and the federation he leads could no longer ignore the evidence that Klinsmann’s players, like American fans, had lost faith in the man who was supposed to bring U.S. soccer to glory.
Klinsmann’s demise began when the U.S. gave Mexico a 25-minute head start in the Columbus qualifier, lining up in what the coach has called both a 3-4-3 and 3-4-1-2 formation. Either way, the U.S. had barely practiced this new system and hadn’t deployed it in a game all year. Tactical masterminds spring surprise formations to target weaknesses in the opposition. In this case, Klinsmann put his own players in position to lose. The team looked totally out of its depth until it shifted into a more typical 4-4-2.
The players at Klinsmann’s last two coaching stops, the German national team and Bayern Munich, have never had anything nice to say about his acumen for X’s and O’s. With the U.S. national team, he combined those poor tactics with a lack of emotional intelligence. After the Mexico game, Klinsmann blamed defender John Brooks for losing Rafa Marquez on a late-game corner, allowing the Mexican captain to head home the winner. Brooks responded to the criticism by playing his worst game in a U.S. jersey in Costa Rica, misjudging headers, taking poor touches directly into the paths of opposition attackers, and getting nutmegged on multiple occasions.
Brooks was hardly the only player to trip over himself in San Jose. The team faltered so badly that Klinsmann himself felt compelled to address the notion that some of his men had stopped trying altogether. “There was nobody giving up at that time,” he told the New York Times this weekend. “That was a normal emotional situation when things go wrong.” The best argument in Klinsmann’s favor was that it was difficult to tell whether the team’s listlessness was due to lack of effort or plain old terribleness.
These emotional situations were supposed to be Klinsmann’s strength. He was the motivator, the communicator, someone who understood players because he had been a great one himself. This could have been a justification for keeping him: He may not be a good coach, but he was an asset as a general manager and technical director. He may not have identified talents like Brooks and Fabian Johnson, but he did convince them to sign their international careers over to the U.S. It’s safe to say that his likely replacement, Bruce Arena, wouldn’t have tried as hard to expand the pool in this way.
But here too Klinsmann fell short of the standards he’d set for himself. Promises to further integrate Hispanic talent into the pool have manifested in a lot of games for Michael Orozco and not much else. Meanwhile, there were plenty of Americans—Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, and the finally recalled Sacha Kljestan among them—who felt unjustly overlooked by a man who cast a wide but shallow net for talent, then patched the holes by shuffling around the players he had called in. If Julian Green scores a goal that gets the U.S. into the semifinals in Qatar, we can all raise a glass to Jürgen Klinsmann, but for now I’d rather pour one out for the years of Michael Bradley’s prime that were wasted with the captain playing out of position as an advanced playmaker.
Arena’s hands are thought to be the safest available on short notice. He’d be a less exciting coach than one of the bright young MLS minds like Óscar Pareja or Jesse Marsch, or than soccer’s Nikola Tesla, Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. But he is familiar with the player pool, and he knows where the light switches are. Arena is something of a tinkerer—he even made a surprise switch to a three-defender formation work against Mexico at the World Cup in 2002—so who knows what the U.S. team might look like if he leads it onto the field for its next World Cup qualifier, against Honduras in March. We can hope it would look cohesive, which would be a big upgrade over the past five years.