How close did Jürgen Klinsmann come to taking the U.S. men's national team job? Awfully close, judging by what the German coach and playing legend says. In an interview with SI.com on Tuesday, the California-based Klinsmann told me:
• that he had agreed on financial terms with U.S. Soccer. "Yeah," Klinsmann said. "That was the first thing we got off the table."
• that negotiations between him and U.S. Soccer lasted three to four weeks.
• that an agreement in principle was reached. "Verbally, it was done," Klinsmann said. "But then the paperwork started, and we couldn't get it done in the paperwork process."
• that the full control of the technical side that he wanted in writing from U.S. Soccer -- and which caused negotiations to break down -- was something he had received from the German federation when he coached the three-time World Cup champions from 2004 to '06, reaching the semifinals of World Cup '06.
So, yeah, Klinsmann came close to taking the U.S. job.
Yet no matter how many times I asked Klinsmann -- and I did so at least four different ways -- he refused to disclose the specific nature of the "control issues" that scuttled his negotiations with U.S. Soccer. What exactly would U.S. Soccer not agree to put into writing that he wanted?
"That goes too much into specifics," Klinsmann said. "I don't want to go that far. We couldn't get the deal done because of a couple of issues, and the main issue was we couldn't get it into a written format. And that's it."
Klinsmann's lack of complete candor is unfortunate, not least because U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati (and everyone else I've spoken to from the federation) has refused to comment on their Klinsmann pursuit. Gulati has yet to acknowledge that he even spoke to Klinsmann about the job, allowing Klinsmann to frame the story on his own terms. (Apparently, Gulati is willing to give the German complete control on at least one thing.)
And let's be clear: Whether in Klinsmann's first public comments on the U.S. job (on Sunday to Kansas City TV analyst Sasha Victorine) or in his interview with me, hearing the story on Klinsmann's terms leaves you with his spin on things -- and several information gaps.
What was different about this negotiation than the one Klinsmann had with U.S. Soccer in 2006 (which also was unconsummated over "control issues")? What was the structure he wanted to implement in U.S. Soccer? Was it for youth development in addition to the senior team? Even if U.S. Soccer refused to give him those powers in writing, why did Klinsmann not think he would get them eventually in the course of the job? And how much did he really want the job if he had so many conditions?
"No, I would prefer to leave it," Klinsmann finally said after I kept pushing. "I know it's the most important topic for you. For me it's sad. It went that way, and the thing is done. So I really don't want to go any further [on those details]."
In the end, there appears to have been a lack of trust between Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer, specifically with Gulati and general secretary Dan Flynn, the duo that led the negotiations for the federation. Perhaps that was due in part to Klinsmann's experience coaching Bayern Munich, in which the board ousted him in 2009 after less than one season on the job.
Clearly, Klinsmann wanted powers that went beyond just coaching the U.S. senior team on the field.
"More and more coaches, if they have the position, try to be GM and coach in one person," Klinsmann said. "Bruce Arena did that obviously with the Galaxy. English coaches traditionally work that way. In Germany, there's [Felix] Magath. After his Bayern Munich experience he said, 'I've got to be my own manager as well [at Schalke].' So it is just normal. You can't also compare, necessarily, different places because every federation has its unique politics and structures."
This is purely speculation on my part, but if Klinsmann wanted the final say, in writing, over choosing the U.S.' opponents and venues for games, that would have put him in direct conflict with Flynn, who's in charge of the federation's business side as the de facto CEO, and who relies on friendlies as a significant revenue source.
(Flynn, a former executive with Anheuser-Busch, is U.S. Soccer's highest-paid official, having earned $646,066 in the most recent federation tax statement made available for public review, covering the dates between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009. Flynn earned more than U.S. coach Bob Bradley during the same time period. Gulati, a Columbia economics professor, is not paid as the federation president.)
It's also possible that U.S. Soccer felt giving Klinsmann the final say in writing over some decisions in Flynn's purview -- including the selection of U.S. opponents and venues -- would be impossible given the language in the federation's current contracts, which include big-money deals with Nike and ESPN.
All that said, the current U.S. coach, Bradley, has significant input (along with Gulati and Flynn) over the scheduling of friendlies, which makes me wonder why Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer couldn't have found a way to make things work.
"It's always down to people," Klinsmann said. "It doesn't matter if the person you talk to is coming from a purely administrative side or if he comes from purely a business background like on an English Premier League team that has a structure like a corporation, basically. It is really down to individual people that you meet, and you talk through the process. It matches or it doesn't. You always negotiate things, and you always try to have all the tools available for yourself. You say I need these tools to get the job done, [because] I have to put out my head if things go wrong. [But] then at least I did it the way I thought was the right one."
And so the U.S. is left, again, with a giant what if?
What if Klinsmann had gotten the job that Gulati and U.S. Soccer have now pursued him for twice? How would his U.S. teams have played?
"You can't really talk about what could have been because it's a working process," Klinsmann said. "Obviously, I'm a deep believer in an attacking style of soccer, there's no doubt about it. I admire a Johan Cruyff that built the Barcelona of today, basically. When I played he was the coach of Barcelona, and I was a player for AS Monaco in the Champions League confronting him with [coach] Arsène Wenger, and they gave us a lesson in 'Total Football.' I just love that style of play. Spain right now [is] demonstrating it, and that's why I was very happy that Spain won the World Cup. They live and breathe that type of soccer.
"But every environment, whatever team you take over, you have to get people on board in believing what hopefully is the right direction. Whatever you do has to fit the people that you work with, and especially the players that you work with. So it is a process that can take years. I started that process with Bayern Munich, but I wasn't given the opportunity to finish it because the board wanted to go in a different direction. And that's O.K. Then it's better that you part ways.
"So you can't discuss today what would be. ... It is something that you discuss in detail with the people that are involved, and maybe along the way, as it happened with the German team, you have to make some changes, you know? Soccer is no different than the normal business world that you live in: You constantly have to adapt to new situations, to look for new things out there, if it's in sports science, psychology or scouting software. You can only hope that you share the same philosophy with the people around you, and then you go and move forward. The key issue is if you're the responsible person for that, and the head coach is the guy who puts out his head in case things go wrong, then you have to have the ultimate say in whoever follows you in that path."
Ultimately, reasonable people can disagree over whether Klinsmann was the right man for the U.S. job, or whether he has demonstrated enough in his short coaching career to issue the kind of demands he was making on U.S. Soccer. But the fact remains that the federation wanted to hire Klinsmann and went down the negotiation road with him for the second time in four years -- and couldn't reach an agreement. Where does that leave the principals? Let's break it down:
Bob Bradley: The hard-working coach who led the U.S. to the second round of World Cup 2010 finally signed another four-year contract, but it wasn't exactly a vote of confidence for him that U.S. Soccer went after Klinsmann again. Then again, Bradley expressed his interest in other jobs (Aston Villa and Fulham), so perhaps the U.S. job wasn't his first choice, either. Considering no other candidates have come up for the U.S. position, other than Klinsmann and Bradley, it may be that Bradley was Gulati's first choice among candidates who were actually willing to sign on the dotted line.
In the end, Bradley is the U.S. coach, even if it may be a marriage of convenience. But you can be certain there will be pressure on Bradley to lead the U.S. to the Gold Cup title in 2011. Whether the onus to win conflicts with the development of new U.S. national team players -- that back line isn't getting any younger -- may well determine the success or failure of Bradley's second term.
Sunil Gulati: The U.S. Soccer president aimed high with Klinsmann (again) and failed to land his man (again). As a result, there's probably more pressure than ever for Gulati to land the real big fish for the U.S.: winning the right to host World Cup 2018 or '22. We'll find out on Dec. 2. If Gulati can do that, those U.S. fans who are upset with him may well calm down a bit.
Dan Flynn: The general secretary of U.S. Soccer keeps a low profile, but he may have had the most to lose had the federation accepted Klinsmann's demands. From a business perspective, Flynn has been good for U.S. Soccer's bottom line: Since he took over as general secretary in 2000, the federation has gone from financially shaky to solid ground. That has given Flynn a lot of power inside the halls of Soccer House, but some fans may wonder: Is it too much power?
Jürgen Klinsmann: It will be interesting to see what comes next for Klinsmann. After his turn as an ESPN analyst during the World Cup, I asked him if he sees himself more as a media member or as a coach. "Definitely more of a coach," he said. How much demand will there be for his coaching services in Europe? Perhaps not much in Germany, if you believe conventional wisdom, but he may have opportunities elsewhere. He's also in the financial position that he doesn't need to take a job now, either.
After Klinsmann expressed his respect for Gulati and U.S. Soccer "and especially for Bob," I asked him if this was the last time he would have negotiations for the U.S. job.
"In soccer, the doors always remain open," Klinsmann said. "You never know what happens tomorrow."