CHESTER, Pa.—Amid the gloom and anger that followed the step backward, Jurgen Klinsmann saw signs of progress.
It wasn’t on the field, where his U.S. national team suffered an upset loss of historic proportion in Wednesday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal. Instead, it was online, over the air and in print. There, criticism, fury and confusion were rampant—by American soccer standards—following the 2–1 defeat to Jamaica. Whether it was aimed at Klinsmann, his players or the officials, the frustration was palpable. And for the coach (and target), it was strangely satisfying.
Managing the senior men’s national team is only one of Klinsmann’s responsibilities. As U.S. Soccer’s technical director, he’s responsible for the entire pyramid, from the U-14 boys national team to the U-23 squad that will attempt to qualify for next year’s Olympics. He appoints coaches and has significant influence over their development and education, as well as that of their players. He also shapes the debate about American soccer culture, from player training and lifestyle to the MLS schedule. His mandate is foundational, and it’s there he saw signs of growth this week despite suffering the worst loss of his four-year tenure.
“The game is growing here so fast. The attention that the game enjoys now is completely different than a couple of years ago,” he said here at PPL Park, where the U.S. is preparing for Saturday’s third-place game against Panama. “The players are getting far more appreciation, but also here and there maybe a little bit of criticism when things don’t work out the right way. It just shows and proves the growth of the United States. It’s going to be only bigger and bigger. If there’s a negative moment, like there’s a negative moment with the Jamaica result—not the game, but the result—then it’s fine if people criticize.”
Klinsmann always has maintained that the American game’s growth depends on more than what happens on the field. The conversation also matters. The crucible is critical. Pressure produces results.
A quick scan of old interviews and press conferences produces variations on the same theme (and often includes old-timey professions).
“If you play in an environment where if you lose Rangers against Celtic, you don’t want to go to the baker the next morning. If you lose that game in Salt Lake City, it’s different,” he said shortly after being hired in 2011. “I don’t think somebody will bother you about that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you lost last night, but no problem.’ In Glasgow, nobody will say, ‘Oh, it’s no problem.’ They will give you crap for five days. You don’t want to go outside anymore.”
A year later, he said, “The environment, especially here, doesn’t request consistency. There’s no peer pressure for them to be consistent. In Europe, on many teams ... if they have a bad game they get to hear it the next day wherever they walk. At the gas station, at the butcher, baker, everywhere. If Landon [Donovan] has a bad game yesterday, you think somebody will bother him in Manhattan Beach? ‘You played really bad last night!’ It’s not happening. This type of an element that is really, really important for them to learn to become consistently accountable for their game.”
For now, most of the ire is being directed toward the coach, not the players. Although many point to mistakes made by young central defenders Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks during the Gold Cup group stage and then Wednesday’s semifinal, the blame has been laid at Klinsmann’s feet for starting them over the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler or Tim Ream—not at those of the 22-year-old backs.
Klinsmann stood by Brooks and Alvarado again on Friday, saying they possess “enormous talent that is growing through” and that the U.S. has lost only one of the seven games they started together.
“We’re going to go through pain here and there. We’re going to do a step back here and there in order to make then two hopefully forward. It’s part of their growth. If there’s a moment to criticize, that’s totally fine,” he said.
U.S. players who spoke Friday were more or less in line with their coach. They accept the fact that this Gold Cup has been a disappointment and that with increased visibility and expectation comes increased scrutiny.
“We’re certainly disappointed, frustrated. But on our end there’s no shying away from anything. When you compete, when this is what you do, when things don’t go well, you face the music. It’s how it goes,” captain Michael Bradley said.
“It can’t be rosy and peaches all the time,” defender Brad Evans said. “We’ve got to learn to battle and fight and see the character of this team on Saturday.”
Klinsmann said the noise still isn’t nearly as deafening as it is in many parts of Europe, where soccer is the most popular sport. The loss to Jamaica wasn’t on the front pages in the U.S. and didn’t lead the evening news.
“You walk out of your door in Europe and you get it in your face,” said Klinsmann, who in early 2006 was criticized by German politicians who said he should appear before a parliamentary committee to explain his results with the German national team.
“But it’s part of it. I take the criticism. We reflect on it. We discuss it internally too, what other people say and think—rightfully so. And here and there, you’ll also make mistakes, as players do, as referees do. We’re all part of that,” he said. “There’s a huge growth of interest, in soccer in this country and with this there is more discussion, more debate. Everybody would probably play a different 11 there, has different ideas, different thoughts about players, judges players differently, and so on. It raises a lot the bar in terms of when things don’t work out, the critics are bigger than before because of the growth of the game in this country.”
There will be no Congressional inquiry into Wednesday’s loss. Klinsmann’s job isn’t in jeopardy and there won’t be any incidents at a neighborhood bakery. But the relative outcry following the semifinal defeat certainly has been notable. It represented the first significant public pushback against Klinsmann since he took over four years ago. And it reminded the players that the public now expects them to win. A decade or so ago, there was far more patience.
“As Jurgen said, we look at the bigger picture,” defender DaMarcus Beasley said. “It’s a growth kind of thing happening with the U.S. team and these things happen. Mistakes are going to happen in football. That’s not a problem as long as we learn from our mistakes and we’re better for it. We’ll take the criticism from you guys and we keep our heads high and we keep striving to be better.”