ST. LOUIS — Shortly after taking over as coach and savior of the U.S. national team in the summer of 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann arranged a trip to France. The Americans would face Les Bleus at the Stade de France, the stadium on the northern edge of Paris where the hosts won the 1998 World Cup. France is among soccer’s elite nations—the only country to claim World Cup, Olympic, Confederations Cup, U-20, U-17 and continental titles—and a relatively routine producer of top-class talent. France represented a “benchmark” and a target. The Klinsmann revolution was supposed to be about closing the gap between the increasingly ambitious U.S. and soccer’s global powers.
“I really believe that the benchmark should be the international game,” Klinsmann said four years ago at the team’s luxurious Versailles hotel, which was a stone’s throw from the iconic Chateau. “I’m looking and saying, 'The reason why Spain and Brazil, Germany, Holland are playing this way is because of these factors. We can analyze the games and we can see it.'"
Among those factors were elements that had no obvious or traditional connection with trapping, shooting or passing a ball. At the highest level—at the World Cup—Klinsmann said, “The only thing that matters is who’s stronger mentally.” So he set out to forge better men. An elite player lived his sport, chased new challenges and pursued excellence 24/7. He ate better, slept better and lived with more confidence, courage and creativity. Fitness would be a massive part of the program, for sure, and Klinsmann’s attention to physiological detail would be rigorous. But a big reason for that focus was that tired legs lead to tired minds. Fatigue leads to failure.
A U.S. national team camp is an exercise in that holistic approach. There’s certainly some soccer. There are also classes and meetings and seminars on topics ranging from nutrition and financial planning to pattern recognition, martial arts and social media. There are team-building events at the hotel and outings designed to broaden players’ horizons. Naturally, the team toured Louis XIV’s palace in November 2011.
“You can just shut down your ears this morning at Versailles. You don’t want to hear about the French Revolution at all. Or maybe you’ll listen a little bit and take something with you, or maybe you’ll really drive yourself into it. Like personality development, nutrition, lifestyle, sleep, education. Those are all elements that will make you a better and stronger person, plus athlete,” Klinsmann said outside Paris. “You’ll never be a good computer programmer if you just put 10 hours a week in there. You probably need 60 or 80 hours to be a really good programmer. The more you realize that this is far beyond a job. If you want to measure yourself with the best of the world in soccer, it’s your life.”
Klinsmann has given his team every chance to measure itself with the best in the world. The U.S. was punchless in its 1-0 loss to France four years ago, but it wasn’t deterred. Klinsmann scheduled friendlies throughout Europe and Latin America and in 2012 he even took his squad to Mexico City, where the U.S. typically didn’t go unless forced.
Klinsmann’s team had a knack for grinding out results and in 2014 it passed the ultimate test—surviving a very tough group at the World Cup. The Americans didn’t demonstrate much of the energetic, proactive soccer Klinsmann preached, but they managed on the scoreboard. A win over Ghana and a draw with Portugal qualified the U.S. for the round of 16, where it was outplayed by Belgium before falling, 2-1, in extra time.
But a funny thing happened while Klinsmann was chasing the big boys. The U.S. lost track of its own backyard. In 2013, the Americans were the unquestioned kings of CONCACAF. A rampant Landon Donovan led the way to an easy Gold Cup title that summer. Then in the fall, the U.S. finished first in the Hexagonal while saving Mexico’s World Cup skin to boot. Klinsmann had built a base from which to launch his assault on the elite.
Two years later, however, that base has crumbled. Donovan is gone, and the best U.S. team Klinsmann could assemble played poorly and finished fourth at this summer’s Gold Cup. Mexico, the tournament champion, then beat the U.S., 3-2, in last month’s Confederations Cup playoff. Klinsmann the U.S. Soccer technical director has seen the youth teams falter as well. The U-23s came in third in the recent Olympic qualifying tournament and now must face Colombia for a berth in Brazil next year. The U-20s were third at this year’s CONCACAF championship before defeating Myanmar, New Zealand and Colombia en route to the quarterfinals of the World Cup, while the U-17s were fourth at theirs.
Four CONCACAF tournaments and not a single gold or silver medal. And the senior squad has won just one of its past six matches against regional opposition. That victory came against Cuba, a team of overwhelmed semi-professionals. On Friday evening here in one of the country’s traditional soccer hotbeds, the U.S. will look to get back on the CONCACAF track—and start World Cup qualifying on the right note—against another Caribbean minnow, 129th-ranked St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Speaking at Busch Stadium on Thursday, Klinsmann addressed his team’s recent run of poor form.
“I agree with the fact that we didn't get the results that we wanted, but I don't agree with the fact that the performances weren’t the ones we wanted to see," Klinsmann said, citing what he thought was a “very, very good” showing against Mexico in last month's playoff in Pasadena, California.
Statistics and the eye test present different conclusions, especially when measured against the type of soccer Klinsmann hopes to play. Mexico, which was undone in past outings against a less-technical U.S. side by the Americans’ willingness to chase, harass and put El Tri under pressure, was emboldened by an opponent that sat deeper and offered space in which to combine and establish rhythm.
Mexico enjoyed more than 63% of the possession, outshot the U.S. 23-14 and completed more than 300 additional passes. The word from U.S. camp was that the coaching staff was experimenting with at least two midfield alignments during the week leading up to the game. There was no definitive plan in place from the start, and the U.S. appeared tentative and unsure of itself once the whistle blew.
The Gold Cup was even worse. Losing to Mexico in front of 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl is understandable. Laboring and struggling in home games against the likes of Haiti, Jamaica and Panama isn’t. The U.S. was placed in what should’ve been a relatively easy group but still took fewer shots than any of the 12 teams during the Gold Cup’s first stage. It was outshot 16-6 by Honduras, 21-6 by Haiti and 13-8 by Panama.
A 2-0-1 record was testament to a clinical Clint Dempsey’s ruthlessness in the penalty area. The U.S. did not play well. The Americans left their finishing boots in the Georgia Dome locker room, however, in a 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the semifinals. It was a decent performance, but the end product wasn’t there. In the bronze-medal match against Panama, the U.S. was outhustled, outplayed, outshot 25-5 and then outlasted on penalty kicks.
This may be a team of better men. Perhaps Klinsmann’s players are eating and sleeping better and training harder. Maybe they’re more aware of the opportunities they have to challenge themselves, whether it’s by angling for a move to a tougher league or by taking on more responsibility their current club. Maybe they’re demanding more of themselves and in so doing, forging athletes more prepared to succeed at a higher level. But that focus on closing ground on the sport's elite still hasn’t created a better U.S. national team.
Individual improvement has come at the expense of collective consistency. This remains a team without an obvious tactical identity, which makes it more difficult to adjust to the revolving rosters national team coaches have to handle. Camps are short and games come fast. Without an immediate or preliminary understanding of the plan or approach, a player probably is less likely to succeed. Add to that the fact that Klinsmann desires tactical flexibility and often deploys players in new positions, and the result is a team that’s still, after four years, trying to find itself. Heading into the Mexico game, for example—the biggest match of 2015—the U.S. had used 13 back four alignments in 16 games.
In Raphael Honigstein’s book on Germany’s road to the 2014 World Cup title, Das Reboot, Klinsmann said, “You’ll often see players look to the coach for direction. But football doesn’t work like that because it’s too fluid. You need players to take charge.”
Four years of asking players to better themselves and “prove their point” has resulted in a team that’s fallen from its regional perch.
Although the U.S. is grouped with St. Vincent, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago in the World Cup qualifying semifinal round, recent results suggest that absolutely no opponent should be taken for granted. The margin for error is tiny. Missing the Confederations Cup is a big deal to the coaches, players and hardcore fans. Missing the World Cup would be an unimaginable blow to the American game.
Now is Klinsmann’s chance to show his coaching chops. He’s famous for his big ideas, limitless ambition and comfort in speaking truth to power. Those are all qualities from which U.S. soccer can benefit. But questions remain concerning his ability to fashion a team that can gel and win on the day. He’s asked the tough questions. He’s challenged his players and the establishment and shown us the ideal. Now, with 2018 on the horizon, he has to aim closer to home. He must build a consistent and repeatable tactical foundation that makes the most of his players’ strengths and permits the group to approach given games with more certainty. He must figure out who and what works, stick with it and then make it better. Give the players a short-term plan to believe in. Put the U.S. back on the road to regional dominance.
A new World Cup cycle is beginning. It’s time for Klinsmann the soccer coach to take charge.