It’s fair to say that U.S. Men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been under fire this year from American fans and writers. The failure to gain the finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July, after being defeated on penalties by Panama in the semifinals, coupled with the October loss to archrival Mexico for a berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup, has created doubts as to whether Klinsmann is still the right man to lead the American squad that earlier in the year had beaten Mexico, the Netherlands and Germany in successive friendlies. Klinsmann, who has also coached the German national team and Bayern Munich, led his squad through a strong 2014 campaign, highlighted by their advance from the World Cup ‘Group of Death’ in Brazil, but the question in sports is always “what have you done for me lately?”
Lately, the USMNT cruised to a 6-1 win Friday night in St. Louis over tiny St. Vincent and the Grenadines in their first CONCACAF qualifier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, but the win was not without some early trepidation, as St. Vincent took an early 1-0 lead on a goal by Dalex Anderson in the fifth minute. Fortunately, Union Berlin’s Bobby Wood equalized for the Americans six minutes later and Fabian Johnson of Borussia Mönchengladbach put the Americans in the lead from his deflected free kick just before the half hour mark. From there, Klinsmann’s team cruised to an easy victory, but one that was wholly expected. The Americans face Trinidad & Tobago Tuesday in Port of Spain in another Group C WC qualifier.
Earlier on Friday, USA Today published an article entitled “Jurgen Klinsmann is coaching for his job over the next 5 days”. Less than a month earlier, ESPN FC had published “Jurgen Klinsmann’s cult of personality wearing thin.” These articles, among many, levelled criticism at Klinsmann and his squad after losing four of their last five matches going into Friday’s qualifier. Klinsmann’s squad has been roundly criticized for being in a state of disarray, with the transitional period that begins a new World Cup cycle lasting too long, with the squad looking unorganized and with no young players really stepping up to take the places of the USMNT’s aging veterans. This is in addition to the underlying criticism of Klinsmann, heard not long after he was hired, that he has not brought an exciting style of soccer to the team as promised. And there is still considerable resentment concerning the German’s choice to not include American icon Landon Donovan on the final 2014 World Cup roster.
Media and fan criticism is one thing, but hours before Friday’s match kicked off, the man with the power to hire and fire the USMNT coach, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, provided some rather lukewarm support for the German coach. Sunati said quite a bit about expectations regarding World Cup qualification for the American national team and what the coach must bring.
We expect to qualify, I expect Jurgen to be the coach. But I don’t think anyone can honestly say, regardless of what happens, this is what we’re going to do. Whether it’s picking the team captain, the right-back, or the coach. No matter what happens, it’s unrealistic.
I haven’t figured out the right way to give the right level of support to the coach, that actually has credibility, without outright saying things that won’t be accurate. No one has got that kind of job security. Not me, not [USSF CEO Dan Flynn], not the players.
My guess is that he’s got the best won-loss percentage we’ve ever had, or it’s close. We got out of the toughest group at the World Cup. We won 12 games in a row.
There’s more attention around this sport than there’s ever been. Part of that is controversy, part of that is his personality. All of those are positives, and we’re going through a bad spell. That happens.
Klinsmann, now 51, took over the reins of the USMNT in the summer of 2011. A former striker with VfB Stuttgart, AS Monaco, Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and Tottenham Hotspur and World Cup champion with the 1990 German national team, Klinsmann had a successful two-year run coaching the German national team to a 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup and an overall record of 20 wins, 8 draws and only 6 losses.
Following his resignation from the German national team following the World Cup, he coached Bayern Munich during the 2008/2009 season, bringing them to the Champions League quarterfinals (where they lost to FC Barcelona under new coach Pep Guardiola) and within three points of the Bundesliga title when he was fired in April –Bayern eventually fell two points short of Bundesliga champions VfL Wolfsburg that season. Klinsmann was approached several times by the USSF to coach the American national team before his 2011 hiring.
Comparisons to the Past
Since his hiring, Klinsmann’s Americans have had a 43-14-21 in the 78 matches he’s coached over four-plus years, a 55% winning percentage. Under Klinsmann, the Americans have advanced out of their group at the 2014 World Cup, before losing to Belgium in the next round, and have won the CONCACAF Gold Cup once in two attempts.
Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, won 54% of his games with the Americans, compiling a 43-12-25 record in his 80 matches in charge from his hiring in December, 2006 until the summer of 2011. His 2010 World Cup team advanced from Group C at the 2010 World Cup, before losing in the next round to Ghana. Bradley’s squads won the CONCACAF Gold Cup once (2007) in three tries.
Bruce Arena was the USMNT prior to Bradley’s hiring, with a tenure that lasted from 1998-2006. In 130 matches in charge, Arena’s teams compiled a 75-27-28 mark for a 58% winning percentage. His 2002 World Cup side went further in that tournament than any other American squad since, while his 2006 team did not advance out of the group stage. Under Arena, the U.S. won two CONCACAF Gold Cups in three attempts.
Klinsmann’s record is thus quite similar to his two predecessors. He has done well enough for his contract to be extended in 2013 through the 2018 campaign, and at that point he was also named U.S. Technical Director. But are expectations higher for Klinsmann, given his work with the German national team and his illustrious playing career? Or is it simply that Americans, having seen their national team qualify for the last seven World Cup tournaments, expect by now to see a team with that record of qualification competitive with the top nations in the world? Perhaps it is just that the current USMNT lacks in-form talent compared to previous squads, in a CONCACAF region that sees other national teams improving?
Whatever the cause, Klinsmann’s alliance with the American soccer hierarchy, writers and fans is in a very uneasy situation right now.