PASADENA, Calif. — I’ve been reading a good book lately. It’s called Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World. The author, Raphael Honigstein, tells the story of how the Germans completely rethought their approach to talent development starting in the late 1990s, refined it even more in the early 2000s and reaped the ultimate reward by winning World Cup 2014.
Jurgen Klinsmann is a central figure in the tale whose voice appears throughout the book. When the German federation has trouble finding a suitable coach in 2004, Klinsmann gets the job and shocks the traditional German system by bringing in his American fitness gurus and introducing a technocrat’s way of thinking when it comes to developing talent and exploring new ideas. In many ways, he’s like a McKinsey consultant for soccer.
Klinsmann, you see, is a big-picture guy, a strategic thinker, someone who spent time at Mike Krzyzewski’s annual course at the Duke School of Business. When he made his famous appearance on ESPN after the U.S. had been eliminated in World Cup 2010, he sounded most excited when talking about the future of U.S. Soccer.
“The pyramid is upside-down,” was his money quote, a direct shot at the way the U.S. develops its young players.
All of the above suggests that Klinsmann was a perfect candidate to be this country’s technical director, one of his two jobs for U.S. Soccer. Technical directors are big-picture guys, visionaries who can put together a long-term strategy. Klinsmann’s attributes are a good fit for that description.
But, in light of the U.S.’s men’s national team’s on-field direction in the 15 months since the 2014 World Cup, culminating in a fourth-place Gold Cup finish and in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, it’s fair to wonder if Klinsmann should also be the senior national team coach. Should he just be the U.S. technical director and stick with that?
Klinsmann isn’t in any danger of losing his U.S. coaching job right now—at least according to his boss, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati—and as long as Klinsmann qualifies the U.S. for World Cup ’18 he’ll almost assuredly keep the coaching job through then. But the way the U.S. played against Mexico was emblematic of how it has played against most decent-to-good teams in recent history: Dropping deep, absorbing pressure, conceding possession and hoping to score on set-pieces or on the counter.
That’s not what Klinsmann promised when he took over in 2011, and it’s not what he’s being paid more than $3 million a year to do. Yes, he can only work with the U.S. talent that he has, but when you’re being paid that much you’re expected to do more than your predecessors who were being paid one-fifth that amount.
Senior national team coach and technical director are demanding jobs for two people, much less one, and Klinsmann himself has said that at times the jobs are in direct conflict with one another. On Saturday, Klinsmann took gut-punches in both jobs. Klinsmann the Coach lost to Mexico for the first time in 11 career games as a player or coach. And Klinsmann the Technical Director saw the U.S. Under-23 team take a brutal (and deserved) 2-0 loss on home soil to Honduras with a berth in the 2016 Olympics on the line.
The U.S. Under-23s, led by Klinsmann’s handpicked coach Andi Herzog, his top senior team assistant, are now in real danger of missing the Olympics for the second straight cycle. The only way the U.S. can now qualify for the Olympics is by beating Canada on Tuesday and then beating Colombia in a one-game playoff in Rio de Janeiro next March. Given the importance Klinsmann has placed on making the Olympics, the U-23 loss on Saturday was almost as deflating as the defeat to Mexico later in the day.
After the Mexico loss in the Rose Bowl, I asked a few U.S. players if they felt comfortable answering the question: Do you think Klinsmann is the right coach to lead the U.S. team moving forward?
Several said they didn’t feel comfortable answering, and you know what? That makes total sense. But Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey said they were willing to answer.
“I always say that he’s the right guy,” Jones said. “I’m not the guy to jump on stuff that people say. If I go on Twitter now, I’m the guy who lost the game today. So this is something you have to take sometimes. We’ll come back.”
“I’m comfortable with Jurgen being the coach,” said Dempsey. “I’ve enjoyed my time playing under him. We fought hard tonight. Showed a lot of character, I thought, coming from a goal down two times. We just came up a little bit short.”
Klinsmann has had some good moments as the U.S. coach. World Cup 2014 has to be considered successful in the sense that the result is still what matters most for the U.S., and Klinsmann’s team advanced out of an extremely difficult group. But second four-year cycles for national team coaches are notoriously difficult, no matter the country, and that has certainly been the case so far for Klinsmann.
It’s enough to make you wonder: Would Klinsmann the Technical Director want to keep Klinsmann the Coach right now if the coach wasn’t the same person?