Jurgen Klinsmann: Der Mann in the U.S.

It’s already been two years since Herr Jürgen Klinsmann became the coach of the United States Men’s National team. It seems only yesterday when Bob Bradley quietly accepted his resignation behind closed doors and walked away, eventually accepting the head coaching position of the Egyptian national team.  Klinsmann had been wined and dined by the U.S. Soccer Federation twice in the past, but on July 29, 2011 the marriage was official as the German took over an American side that needed something special to get back on it’s feet.

When Bob Bradley left, the US men’s national team wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. A disciple of the previous U.S.coach, Bruce Arena, Bradley took over after the Arena-led side was bounced out of the 2006 FIFA World Cup in the group stage, suffering a frustrating 2-1 loss to Ghana after a braveheart draw against Italy.

Bradley started well, not losing a single game until after the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, including two victories against Mexico’s El Tri, the eternal rival of the US. After that, however, the difficulties against world-class talent showed. Five straight losses in 2007 friendlies after the run in the Gold Cup showed the US that beating up on the nearby easy pickings did not mean immediate international success. In fact, the US would only pick up five wins and two ties against seven losses to non-CONCACAF nations between July, 2007 and June 2009 (there were 10 wins and two ties with one loss against CONCACAF nations in that same time span).

Despite upsetting then #1 Spain in the semifinals of the 2009 Confederations Cup and taking a two goal lead in the final against Brazil before losing 3-2, American success in the prelude to the 2010 FIFA World Cup didn’t translate a year later.  Drama in the 2010 World Cup against England, Slovenia and Algeria (especially Algeria) was certainly an endearing aspect of the Americans play in South Africa for casual American followers, but another exit to Ghana was not what more devoted followers of the USMNT demanded.  Bradley lost more and more support after earning just one win between the World Cup exit and the Gold Cup the following year. The USMNT was lacking in technique, drive, and finishing, and allowed too many early goals to compete at a top level (the US only scored two goals once, and three total in the other seven). After sputtering through to another Gold Cup final, a coaching change was evident as Bradley’s 2011 Gold Cup squad lost in the finals after Mexico stormed back from two early US goals and ran over a conservative US squad for four straight goals and a second straight Gold Cup.

The change was well-timed with the beautiful game was picking up popularity in the States.  American TV ratings for the World Cup were beating the sports considered more popular in the US., as 2010 World Cup viewership exceeded the amount of viewers for that year’s NBA Finals, NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, and was equal to an average NFL regular season game. Major League Soccer surged out of bankruptcy and expanded around the nation and added a second Canadian team. Every MLS team now has its own development academy, a part of the ongoing youth revolution in the American game today. Attendance was up as big names like Beckham and Henry, as well as Germany’s Arne Friedrich and Torsten Frings in later years, came to play at bigger and soccer-specific venues. In fact, the average attendance at an MLS game in 2011 was greater than the attendance at an average NBA or NHL game, but still well behind baseball and the football with gigantic pads protruding every which way. Football (not just the American kind!) was on the rise in the United States, and the Klinsmann appointment brought an extra oomph to the national side.

As for Klinsmann, his claim to fame was taking a German side that was booted out of Euro 2004 with hardly a whimper, and turned them around just in the nick of time for the 2006 World Cup in their own nation. While he was originally considered to have been the coach to restore the faith in the German way of the game, things got pretty bumpy during the trip from Hell to almost Heaven.

After a respectable 3rd place finish in the 2005 Confederations Cup, Klinsmann’s Nationalelf fell apart. Ties to the dreaded Oranje and Bleus, losses to Slovakia and Turkey, and a narrow escape over China saw their FIFA ranking drop to it’s lowest point in the nation’s history just three months from the World Cup. The zeitgeist in Germany was that of a plane plummeting towards earth, with Klinsmann at the controls.

But then Klinsmann somehow brought the team – and nation – together for the summer fairytale that was the 2006 World Cup. Breezing through the group stage and knocking out Sweden and Argentina, and coming up so close against eventual champs Italy proved to be enough for Klinsmann, who became the most stressed out man in Germany.

But after his time at Germany, many questioned if it was even Klinsmann, and not Jogi Löw who did all the work pulling the Nationalelf together. This dynamic was soon realized when Klinsmann took over at FC Bayern the year after they won the Bundesliga for the umpteenth time. Not a single trophy came back to the Allianz during his tenure, and Klinsmann was sacked before the season even ended. Defender Philipp Lahm was a harsh critic of Klinsmann’s time with Die Roten, saying:

“We practiced little more than fitness. Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before [the games] to discuss how we wanted to play. After six or eight weeks, all players knew it wouldn’t work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation.”

Ouch.

To make matters worse, Landon Donovan, the only US player with 50 goals and assists for the national side, came over on an off-season loan from the LA Galaxy, but he only saw action in a few games and never was picked up by the Reds.

Perfect.

So Klinsmann, for the second time in less than a decade, had to put a nation on his back and get them to believe in their team again. But now with the extra burden of making football cool. The only way to do that in the US is to dominate the opponent, game in and out.

The domination had to wait until just the past few months. It was an especially slow going at the beginning of Klinsmann’s reign. After taking over one day after Bradley’s departure, Klinsmann had to get his team ready on August 10 for an east coast rematch of the Gold Cup Final. It ended in a 1-1 tie, a good result that outlined the work that needed to be done.

Whatever Klinsmann brought in 2011 did not work as the Stars and Stripes fell apart, only winning two and losing the rest of the matches that year, including two lowly opponents in the CONCACAF region.

From the beginning, the decision to bring on Klinsmann was either sharply criticized or heavily praised. SB Nation did not like the signing whatsoever, calling him a “disaster waiting to happen.” But Grant Wahl thought the foreign touch of aggression was exactly what the US needed, stuck in the mud of mediocrity for too long.

The beginning of 2012 provided Wahl and the optimists hope, as Klinsmann’s men rattled off four consecutive wins, capped off by a 1-0 squeaker over Italy and a thumping 5-1 win over Scotland that gave the US some hope going into the World Cup qualifying round.

Soon, people started believing the lore of Klinsmann, packing the stadiums and practice fields. (I actually got to witness one of the practices first-hand last year at my University of Maryland. The Stars and Stripes were preparing for a test against Brazil in a couple of days, and wanted to give the fans a look at their heroes. I had actually just come back from a four month investigation of German football and figured a couple hundred people would show up on the scorching Sunday. No one in their minds would seriously come out for a practice on a triple digit day in May. But thousands popped up and showed off their spirit for the team, hours before a practice! I overheard one fan talk about the similar red explosion, saying there were only 10 fans at a DC-area US practice before the 1998 World Cup. No need for security or barricades at the time. This time, there were 2,000 fans packed into Ludwig Field, guards in bright yellow every 10 yards and fences lining the inside of the track to allow practice to go on without a mob of fans serving as one all-encompassing obstacle).

The fans really believed in the US boys, until Brazil brought them down from cloud nine 48 hours later.

It only got worse for Klinsmann and the US later in the year, as difficulties with qualifying for the World Cup reared their ugly heads. What was so simple for Bob Bradley a few years ago gave Klinsmann headaches. The Yanks only managed four points in three qualifying matches. Not even the team’s first ever win in the daunting Estadio Azteca against El Tri could override the nervousness of American soccer fans. If the US did not make it out of this round of qualifying, the finger-pointing would stay with Klinsmann until he was taken out by any means necessary, and Klinsmann’s name would be tarnished forever. Knowing this, Klinsmann and the US knocked out wins over Jamaica, Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala to (nervously) finish atop the group and continue with the qualifying process.

The troubles only deepened after a March, 2013 article in Sporting News revealed internal turmoil in the US team. It started out with Klinsmann suddenly changing the lineup right before the World Cup qualifying match in Honduras, keeping Carlos Bocanegra off the pitch for the important fixture. Instead, Klinsmann put in inexperienced center backs and two German-born players, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson, along the backline, leaving former-captain Bocanegra scratching his head and the US without a point coming back home that evening. Another noted concern was a lack of a consistent lineup (24 different lineups in Klinsmann’s first 24 games as manager) With the lack of a constant lineup, there was not a sense of normality, and degrading team chemistry since no one knew who would play along with whom, right in the middle of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

And then the needed results came . They weren’t always artistic successes, but the positive results were exactly the tonic required for both team and coach.  The aid of a blinding March snowstorm gave the Americans a lucky break in a 1-0 World Cup qualifier victory over Costa Rica in Colorado. Four days later came the trip down to the dreaded Estadio Azteca for the US. where Klinsmann’s troops earned a  point in a scoreless draw.  we say a tie is like kissing your sister; it sounds great at first, but you both feel terrible about it afterwards. But this tie was like kissing your hot swimsuit model of a sister for the US (and more like a pig for Mexico). Nabbing a point when they needed it most was exactly what the doctor ordered.

After a rough loss to Belgium had more calls for his head, Klinsmann figured the best way to get back on track would be a good result against his old nation and assistant: Germany and Joachim Loew. While Germany did not have anything riding on the game, the US needed a catapult for a rebound in momentum to carry with them to the qualifying stage again. By some stretch of the imagination, and a little luck that Loew brought his “B”-side with so many regular German internationals involved in the Champions League final, the US pulled off the emphatic 4-3 victory over Germany’s B team before getting returning to June qualifiers.  It didn’t hurt that Klinsmann could (at least temporarily) throw the monkey off his back about Löw being the main creator of Germany’s 2006 World Cup success. War jokes aside, (yes those are real hats and were worn in the stadium during the game) it was the perfect way to celebrate the 100th anniversary of football in the United States.

That victory over his native country jump-started the American squad, which racked up more wins in the Hexagonal qualification round.   Striker Jozy Altidore, who had a huge season scoring for AZ Alkmaar, but hadn’t yet thrived under Klinsmann’s tutelage, added a goal in three more games straight, helping the US get nine more points. Currently, the US sits comfortably on top of the CONCACAF 2014 World Cup Qualifying standings with 13 points. With four more qualifying games to go, and just three points away from what’s considered a safe amount of points for qualifying, the problems of 10 months ago looked so far away.

And just for good measures, a 6-1 rout of Guatemala to celebrate the triumphant return of America’s all-time leading scorer in Landon Donovan brought the US to their feet. Something magical was happening with the Stars and Stripes

The CONCACAF Gold Cup this month was Klinsmann’s final test for his second year with the Stars and Stripes. In order to win over the last of his critics, he’d have to win it all, especially if they faced arch-rivals Mexico squad in Chicago in the final. But buoyed by the recent success in qualifying, and facing some of the lesser competition in CONCACAF, the Yanks blasted their way past Belize, Cuba and Costa Rica by an 11-2 aggregate margin and perfect record to proceed into the next round.

What got me, and the rest of the United States to believe in Klinsmann as more than the guy shouting from the bench was his perfectly timed substitution in the quarterfinals against El Salvador. Early in the second half, Klinsmann opted for Eddie Johnson to take the place of Chris Wondolowski, the tournament’s leading goal-scorer. While most of the country looked puzzled, Klinsmann knew he would deliver. It took only 14 seconds after Johnson got on the pitch that he found the back of the net off a cross. The US was not only playing well technically-speaking, but they finally had the flare that was lacking for so long. It was fun to watch, the team have fun with a comfortable 5-1 lead, relaxed and not worried about giving up a goal, Landon Donovan told the opposing fans to “deal with it” at the end with a pair of sunglasses they threw at them. The icing on the winning cake. LA Times writer Kevin Baxter said that he couldn’t blame Klinsmann for running out to the center of the field and shout, “I told you so!” While I would agree with him that he proved he knew what he was doing, though, he’d have to fully convince me by winning the whole competition.

But what came next was probably the defining moment of his two years at the helm of the Yanks was the semifinal against Honduras. Matches against Latin American teams always come with a scrap from the southern side of the continent. But this was the worst that Klinsmann saw with the U.S. Klini slowly went from merely shaking his head, to shock, to the verbal storm hurled at the referee in the 87th minute that resulted in a soccer ball with it’s feelings hurt and Klinsmann leaving the field for the rest of the Gold Cup. While the referee and CONCACAF did not like Klinsmann’s actions, Klinsmann stood up for his team when they were battered around, something that Americans have not seen since Bruce Arena was kicked out for the final in 2005.

The Gold Cup final had a camera that was purely focused on Klinsmann’s disdain with his spot in the press box. Fans showed off their support of the caged coach with posters, and even t-shirts for their coach. Despite his physical and mental energy trapped behind a glass box in the stands, he was still a part of the game. In stoppage time of the match, Klini sprinted out of the press area to get with his team, no matter how many balls he had to throw or personnel to yell at to get there. While his assistants may get the credit in the record books for coaching the team to the victory in the finals, Klinsmann and everyone else knows it was Klinsmann who guided them there, and on their 11 game winning streak (best ever streak for the US).

Oh, and it came on the eve of his second anniversary of taking over the US squad. Happy anniversary to Der Mann.

There is still work to be done with under one year before the test of all tests: the World Cup. Klinsmann can celebrate the best present he could have going on two years with the team, but another pointy and shiny Gold Cup would be dumped in the trash to make way for an incoming World Cup trophy. The US isn’t in the same class as Spain or Brazil, but for right now, he has put the nation back on top in the region, and I think it’s fair to say that Klinsmann is Der Mann in the US.

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