Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Armchair Analyst: Jurgen Klinsmann's USMNT era comes to a close


Jurgen Klinsmann was fired today by US soccer, ousted after just more than five mostly rocky years at the USMNT helm, and just under three years as technical director.

His end came gradually, then all at once:

The butcher's bill for his tenure is an almost incomprehensible list of firsts:

• First four-game home winless streak against CONCACAF opponents since 1965

• First loss to a Caribbean opponent in World Cup qualifying since 1969

• First loss to Jamaica, ever

• First home loss to Jamaica, ever

• First time US U-17 team missed the Youth World Cup

• First loss to Guatemala since 1988 -- a Guatemala team that was the lowest-ranked squad to beat the US in the history of the FIFA Rankings

• First US coach in 25 years to fail to record a single win in official competition against a Top 10 side

• Worse record vs. Top 20 sides in official competition than any of his four predecessors:

Under Klinsmann's stewardship, the US missed back-to-back Olympics for the first time in 50 years. Klinsmann had prioritized Olympic qualification from Day 1, and while you can fudge his responsibility for the 2012 failure at least a little bit (that came before he was technical director), he has to own the 2016 misery. It was his hand-picked top assistant, Andreas Hertzog, who guided that particular ship to the bottom of the ocean.

And it was Klinsmann himself who blithely, hypocritically and high-handedly dismissed his critics.

“It’s a good thing you have so much comments and opinions because it shows you that a lot more people care,” Klinsmann told the Washington Post in 2015. “They care about the game, they care about the national team. They care about saying their opinion. 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.”

Yet it was Klinsmann himself who exited that tournament complaining about officiating calls that were, upon multiple reviews, correct. It seemed he was the one in need of an education on the laws of the game, as well as the US's history of handling teams like Jamaica even in the face of multiple difficulties.

On top of the excuses, it was Klinsmann whose team was repeatedly out-shot, out-possessed, out-fought and out-played against the likes of Panama, Honduras and even Haiti.

A month after giving that quote, the US lost again -- this time to Mexico, and this time with a trip to the Confederations Cup on the line. Down went another one of Klinsmann's stated goals, and another of destructive peccadilloes popped up: He seemed to blame the loss on fullback Fabian Johnson, who had to be subbed off after 110 minutes of playing through a calf injury.

"I had a very severe word with Fabian Johnson, and I sent him home today," Klinsmann said at the time. "He can rethink his approach about his team."

This was a pattern -- throwing specific players under the bus after bad defeats -- that was repeated throughout his tenure, to the point that USSF president Sunil Gulati even had to comment publicly about it. It was to no avail, however, as Klinsmann persisted with that particular tack to the bitter end when he trashed John Brooks after the home loss to Mexico to start the Hexagonal, then saw the highly rated Hertha Berlin center back put in perhaps the single worst performance of any US defender in the modern history of the program four days later at Costa Rica.

Perhaps it was a defense mechanism or perhaps it was a hard-wired, Randian belief that the individual is the only essential unit. Either way, Klinsmann's inability to accept responsibility and willingness to use the guillotine on his own players did, according to multiple anonymous USMNT players, cost him the trust of the locker room. And it showed on the field.

His lack of tactical acumen or belief in granular preparation also showed, and was first revealed on these shores in Brian Straus' excellent, exquisitely sourced behind-the-scenes look at the USMNT's struggles at the start of the last Hexagonal.

"[Klinsmann] didn't really say how we were going to play. It was a quick turnaround," an anonymous player told Straus. "He just basically said, ‘Guys, we know the importance of the game. We know it's going to be a tough game down here. They made it a national holiday. They're going do everything they can.

"‘They're going to bite, kick and scratch. They're going to do everything to take you out of your game. But at the end of the day, it's a game. The ball doesn't change. The way we play doesn't change. So just go out there and represent yourselves well.'"

That jibed with stories from Klinsmann's previous two stops, first with the German national team from 2004 through 2006 and later, briefly, with Bayern Munich.

"We practically only practiced fitness under Klinsmann," wrote all-world fullback Philipp Lahm in his autobiography. "There was very little technical instruction and the players had to get together independently before the game to discuss how we wanted to play. All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage."

Talk to US players now, and they'll tell long stories about resistance-band training, empty stomach runs, three-a-days and yoga classes under Klinsmann. Precious few have offered stories of detailed film sessions or intense, meticulous tactical work.

That the US qualified for the final 16 of the 2014 World Cup in spite of the above speaks to the strength of the player pool -- one of Klinsmann's indisputable successes has been expanding the roster (the other is winning a lot of friendlies), especially when it comes to recruiting dual-nationals. But in so doing, the team played a regressive brand of bunker-ball even more unapologetic than what Bora Milutinovic trotted out way back in 1994 with far fewer resources at his disposal.

The result was a record performance from Tim Howard in goal against Belgium, and a convenient scapegoat in Chris Wondolowski. But it also forefronted Klinsmann's inability to pick a coherent roster, as well as his fundamental distrust of attacking players. The failure to bring a back-up for Jozy Altidore to Brazil 2014 was inexcusable, while the omission of Landon Donovan was self-defeating.

Donovan, in his final 11 national team starts, registered eight goals and eight assists. That includes a spin as the Golden Ball winner at the 2013 Gold Cup -- to date Klinsmann's only trophy as a manager -- and a 1 goal/1 assist effort in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico to clinch a spot in Brazil. That game turned out to be the final Dos a Cero.

Donovan's exclusion was not justified, but it could have been mitigated by the inclusion of other attacking players like Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan or Lee Nguyen, or at least a willingness to move Johnson up into midfield as a way of generating more offense. Instead Klinsmann played Bradley, a natural d-mid or box-to-box midfielder, as a pseudo trequartista; he played Clint Dempsey, a natural second forward or inverted winger, as a lone No. 9; he slotted dogged yet unspectacular two-way players like Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya on the wings, and thus the US generated little possession and even less open play danger.

He set up the team like minnows, and then coached them to be minnows. This gave the lie to his grand pronouncements about attacking attractive soccer first broadcast to the fanbase during his introductory press conference, then with less and less frequency as the years wore by.

If there was hope that would change, Klinsmann would probably still be the boss today. Yet even when things were going well, he couldn't help but tinker with them until they broke. He finally had the US in a pragmatic, balanced 4-1-3-2 for the bulk of this past summer's Copa America, with Bradley sitting in at d-mid to protect the central defense. It led to wins over Ecuador and Costa Rica (the only wins over top 20 teams under Klinsmann), as well as Paraguay.

But poor roster construction meant he scuttled that look for the semifinal against Argentina for a lopsided 4-4-2 with Bradley and Kyle Beckerman playing box-to-box, and the US subsequently took a 4-0 beating. Then came the Mexico game in Columbus two weeks ago, and...

November 21, 2016

That is not an unfair representation of the post-match spin and blame-shifting. Last Tuesday's 4-0 humiliation put a bow on the whole thing.

With that the Klinsmann era came to a close, and the trick for whoever the next coach is will be to make certain that trust -- both within the locker room, and with the fanbase -- is rebuilt, that a core and an identity are developed, that stability is achieved, and that tactical ideas are both clear and measurable.

It is not an impossible task. Klinsmann could have accomplished it had he had ever given himself the chance.

A few more thoughts:

4. Klinsmann was 9-1-1 in official competitions in which Donovan played, and 19-12-5 in games he didn't. Remember that, and his choice not to bring Donovan to Brazil, when folks talk about Klinsmann's winning percentage and the particularly great results from 2013.

3. The latest player to be thrown under the bus was Christian Pulisic, who Klinsmann seemed to blame for the malfunctioning 3-4-3/3-5-2/whatever against Mexico.

2. Some of the success in friendlies I mentioned: Wins over Italy, the Netherlands and Mexico on the road, and over Germany at home. No coach in US history has ever made better use of subs 4-through-6.

1. Nonetheless, Klinsmann's teams were utterly inept against foes of that caliber in games that mattered. He failed to register a single win against a Top 10 team, becoming the first US manager unable to take that hurdle since Bob Gansler was coaching a roster full of mostly college kids in 1989 and 1990.

And it's not just that his team didn't win, it's that under Klinsmann the US weren't even close:

  • Steve Sampson: 450 mins vs. top 10, held the lead for 21.1% of the time
  • Bruce Arena: 810 mins vs. top 10, held the lead for 22.2% of the time
  • Bob Bradley: 720 mins vs. top 10, held the lead for 25.5% of the time
  • Klinsmann: 570 mins vs. top 10, held the lead for 1.6% of the time

To reiterate: All those numbers come from official competitions. No friendlies in there.

And no reason to think it would change. Klinsmann habitually tinkered until his players stopped playing for him and until his situation as coach and TD became untenable.