Miguel Herrera is gone, undone by the passion that caused fire and lightning to pour from his body in so many gifs and which breathed life back into the Mexican national team in time to qualify for last summer’s World Cup.
El Piojo—“The Louse”—was fired Tuesday, fewer than 48 hours after winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, because of an airport altercation with a Televisión Azteca commentator. Thanks to one moment of madness, Herrera’s 21-month tenure with El Tri was over.
But make no mistake, his job security was always tenuous. Mexico entered this month’s Gold Cup on a seven-game winless streak, which included a ‘B’ team’s 0-1-2 run at Copa América.
It then was poor during the CONCACAF championship tournament, until the final. Herrera escaped the axe twice last week. El Tri needed phantom penalty kick calls to avoid a shootout following a wasteful performance against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal, and then to avoid a loss to 10-man Panama in the semi. Defeat in either game would have cost Herrera his job. He was hired during a crisis and would last until the next one.
That’s because Mexico demands results. The infrastructure is in place and national team coaches are expected to win now. The last El Tri manager to survive an entire World Cup cycle was Ricardo La Volpe (2002-06). Seven men have occupied the position since. By contrast, each of the past five U.S. national team coaches has remained on the job for at least one cycle (Steve Sampson’s started in 1995 but he worked through the ’98 World Cup).
It’s totally impossible to imagine Jurgen Klinsmann assaulting a critic. Publically, the U.S. coach is easy going and affable. He deflects criticism with a laugh and an “It’s fine,” or “It’s just normal.” Following last week’s semifinal loss to Jamaica, Klinsmann said the resulting furor “just shows and proves the growth of [soccer in] the United States.” But then he compared the environment to Europe, where “You walk out of your door … and you get it in your face.”
He could have added Mexico to that sentence. The demands in the U.S., for the most part, simply are different.
Klinsmann can continue to coach with ultimate confidence despite a fourth-place finish at a frenetic Gold Cup because he knows he wasn’t hired to win a given game on a given day, or even a given tournament. Results are important, sure. And they certainly are to the players, whose effort shouldn’t be questioned. But if the U.S. Soccer Federation wanted a coach who focused on devising a plan to win the match in front of him, it would have stuck with Bob Bradley.
The USSF and president Sunil Gulati were aiming for something else. They wanted a leader with global pedigree—one who would take aim at the roots and identity of the American game, from the way players are educated and developed to the style of soccer they play once they take the field. They wanted a coach who would inspire increased confidence and devotion in athletes and more passion from supporters (Bradley, incidentally, proved plenty inspirational during this tenure in Egypt), all while questioning the assumptions we make at every level of the sport. And they desired a recruiter who would tempt dual nationals to commit to the U.S. That's not a one-year, or even a four-year, mandate. Klinsmann’s 2013 contract renewal and promotion to USSF technical director are testament to the generational job he’s been hired to do.
“We don’t make judgments based on one thing,” Gulati said after the U.S. fell to Panama in Saturday’s bronze medal game. “Progress is not linear for anyone. There’s bumps along the way. This is clearly a bump … But that’s the norm for everyone because you don’t go through and win all your games. Is Argentina happy about not qualifying for the Confederations Cup? And Brazil being out? But they don’t panic and throw everything out. We’re making progress in certain areas, and less so in other areas.”
Progress isn’t linear. It’s coming in some areas, but not others. That’s been the case since Klinsmann took over, and it’s why the Gold Cup results shouldn’t really surprise anyone. To paraphrase Dennis Green, they are who we thought they were.
Klinsmann is constantly testing and tinkering and he’s enchanted by things new and undiscovered. Youth, speed and fearlessness are always appealing. He brought DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green and Aron Jóhannsson to the World Cup at the expense of Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson, among others. And Klinsmann kept sending defenders John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado out during the Gold Cup despite mistakes that indicated they weren’t quite ready.
Tactics and responsibilities shift and positions often are notional. Michael Bradley became an attacking midfielder a couple months before the World Cup. Gyasi Zardes became a winger, Brek Shea an outside back and, on a few occasions, Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona a No. 6. Multiple players have been deployed in multiple spots. Does that hinder chemistry on the day? Probably. But does it, over time, make players more flexible and comfortable when facing different teams, situations and challenges? That’s what Klinsmann is banking on.
Sometimes, it all comes together. The U.S. tore through the 2013 Gold Cup, winning all six games by a combined 20-4. It won friendlies in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico City. Sometimes, it doesn’t come together. The Americans were fortunate last summer in Brazil, escaping from a murderous group at 1-1-1 before taking a dominant Belgium to extra time in the round of 16. The U.S. was outshot 94-44 across its four games and was outpossessed 56.5% to 43.5%. Both shot totals were the worst of any U.S. World Cup team since American soccer’s modern era began in 1990. None of the 2014 squad’s six predecessors yielded more completed passes and only one did a poorer job holding onto the ball.
Is it a shock, then, that after a “year of transition” featuring myriad adjustments, arrivals and departures, that the U.S. posted an ugly performance in an ugly tournament? Perhaps only Jamaica and Haiti left this Gold Cup feeling good about itself. The other entrants were underwhelming, none more so than Klinsmann’s U.S. Save the 6-0 quarterfinal annihilation of Cuba, the Americans created few chances (but finished efficiently until the semifinal), rarely imposed themselves on their opponent for significant stretches and failed to establish much continuity or chemistry. No team took fewer shots during the group stage.
The Americans weren't clinical in the semifinal and then were outplayed badly in the consolation game. But none of the U.S. players was developed in an environment fashioned by Klinsmann. The tone he hopes to set has come too late for veteran members of the senior squad. He’s pushing them anyway, perhaps courageously, perhaps naively, and rolling the dice on the final score. Maybe that’s the price to pay for long-term progress. Or maybe it’s just the price for hiring Klinsmann.
There have been calls for Klinsmann’s job since the Gold Cup from both fans and the press. The clamor is now louder than ever. It suggests that some who were fine with him before the tournament have changed their mind or seen their patience exhausted.
But three weeks of Gold Cup mayhem shouldn’t really have had a significant impact on your opinion. This is the same team we’ve seen for the past couple of years. It’s just that this time, the breaks didn’t go their way. If you thought before the Gold Cup that Klinsmann was capable of the long-term, foundational change he’s been asked to implement, then a couple of tight games played in the heat or on shoddy fields, and some bad bounces against Jamaica, shouldn’t convince you otherwise. If you never thought he was capable, or if you felt results should trump a coach or federation's long-term vision, then you probably made your decision last summer. Either way, the Gold Cup was just another bump in the road, one step back amid many.
Gulati said Saturday that Klinsmann’s job wouldn’t be in jeopardy even if the U.S. loses the October playoff against Mexico that will send the winner to 2017 Confederations Cup. It is, after all, only one game. And it will be played at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl before what very well could be a hostile crowd. El Tri’s coaching change may confuse or inspire. We won’t know for 10 weeks.
What we do know, however, is that if the U.S. is improving, it’s not necessarily going to be evident during a 90-minute senior international. We don’t see the way members of the U-17 pool are training, or whether methods have improved at clubs throughout U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy. We don’t know if Klinsmann’s fitness and nutrition, martial arts, social media and financial planning classes will forge more well-rounded, responsible athletes.
We don’t know if the newly-established junior national teams or coaches' education standards will produce results. We don't know if Gedion Zelalem, Bobby Wood or Rubio Rubin will fizzle or blossom by 2018, or if the Brooks and Alvarado Gold Cup experience will pay off. We don’t know if anyone's listening at MLS headquarters. We don't know if soccer’s increasing, organic popularity will be sufficient to raise the level of play, or if the game needs a push from Klinsmann to get there.
If the U.S. wins in October, many will praise Klinsmann for rallying his troops and beating Mexico in a huge game (in a stadium Bob Bradley couldn't). If the U.S. loses, he’ll be hammered. Either way, the noise probably will miss the point. He’s here on a long-term project. That means he’s here for the long term. And we may not know if he did a good job until after he's gone.