U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, left, has been impressed with the USA's mentality under Jurgen Klinsmann. (Richard Drew/AP)
After falling behind by two goals in the opening 30 minutes, the U.S. national team clawed its way back and leveled the score in August’s friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina, the world’s 13th-ranked side.
What happened next in Sarajevo left a lasting impression on U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
“We come back and tie the game, 2-2, and we don’t sit back,” he said during a Friday conference call with reporters. “That’s a new mentality. The players have the confidence to continue to press forward against a good European team in Europe … [and aren’t] willing to accept a draw. And we go on to win, 4-3 … We’ve seen players with more confidence, and I think that’s in great measure due to the confidence Jurgen has instilled into the team and individual players, that we can be better than we’ve been.”
Other U.S. coaches have won CONCACAF Gold Cup titles and finished first in the Hexagonal, the region’s grueling World Cup qualifying tournament. But for Gulati, results – while critical – are just the beginning when evaluating Klinsmann. He felt the manner in which the U.S. has played under its new coach, not to mention his mandate to overhaul American soccer’s ambitions and its approach to tactics and player development, warranted an additional commitment.
On Thursday, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that Klinsmann had signed a contract extension lasting through the 2018 World Cup. He was also promoted to technical director, formalizing his authority over the developmental and competitive pyramid topped by the senior men’s side.
Although the U.S. previously has gone against the global grain by retaining a national team coach for a second World Cup cycle, granting that extension before the first tournament is exceedingly rare. The work Klinsmann has done in his 2.5 years on the job, his long-term vision and the potential emergence of additional suitors for his signature all were factors in the new contract, Gulati said Friday.
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A significant portion of the work Klinsmann was hired to do, or at least to suggest and inspire, will take longer than three years to accomplish. Although not discussed, Klinsmann’s success in recruiting dual-national players also surely appealed to Gulati. Forward Aron Johannsson and defender John Brooks chose the U.S. over the countries where they were raised, Fabian Johnson has been a huge asset and promising Bayern Munich attacker Julian Green, 18, remains in play.
Gulati said Friday that he began speaking to Klinsmann about a new deal in the fall and stressed that they reached an agreement prior to last week’s World Cup draw, which placed the U.S. in a brutal group containing Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
Klinsmann is earning a base salary of $2.5 million per year under his current contract. Terms of the extension weren’t disclosed.
“This is a way of making a long-term commitment to each other, one that we’re pleased with. Traditionally we’ve waited until after the World Cup, but we decided not to do that here. Jurgen is a unique coach with a unique opportunity,” Gulati explained. “We like what’s been happening with the program over the last couple of years. All of this doesn’t come down to one game or one missed shot or one save [at a World Cup]. Clearly, the World Cup is extremely important and it’s a measure of where we are, but it’s not the only way we measure ourselves.”
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Klinsmann said Friday that a long-term commitment offers essential continuity.
“It’s easier to break through [when you’re] getting everyone pulling in the same direction, if you kind of know you’re long term here and you follow through with it," he said. "You’re consistent, you’re persistent and you want to do things well and you want to explain yourself in the long term. It gives you all of that sense of thinking through certain periods and now just not counting down the days [to the World Cup].”
He acknowledged he experienced a learning curve while getting to know his players and dealing with the trials of World Cup qualifying and that he now has a “better understanding” and a “better feel” that will serve him well over the next four-plus years.
“Coming through these two and a half years, I started to really enjoy that work, getting to know everybody involved, understanding the potential of the United States … to grow and to improve and to challenge the so-called bigger nations around the globe, and I just felt like this is a wonderful opportunity to make it grow more and more,” Klinsmann said.
Beyond the senior national side, he is passionate about reshaping American soccer at its foundation, from coaching education to youth player development. Klinsmann said Friday that he wants youth coaches, especially those at the elite level, to undergo more rigorous licensing and education and to “never be satisfied with anything.”
He also wants to work more closely with MLS on finding playing opportunities for young pros. “How do we make sure these kids continue to play 40-50 games a year, which they badly need in order to grow and reach their highest potential one day,” he asked.
Klinsmann will need time to reach those goals. In the interim, of course, there’s the not-so-small matter of the World Cup. Although he’s now protected regardless of his results in Brazil, Klinsmann promised he wasn’t looking past the Group of Death.
“A coach will always be measured by his results,” he said. “I’m a very ambitious person and I always have high expectations in what I want to do. I’m not looking for any kind of comfort zone going into the World Cup and I would never take that approach. I expect us to do wlel and get through that very difficult group. You’re always going to be measured by that … rightfully so. There’s no protection for anything. As a coach in the professional field, you’re always on your toes.”