Whence Klinsmann?

As anger toward Bob Bradley grows, the name on the lips of most US fans is Jürgen Klinsmann.  Since the end of World Cup 2006, a large portion of US fans (perhaps even a majority) have desperately wanted Klinsmann to coach the National Team.  It is agonizing because he twice came this close to signing, but backed out at the eleventh hour.

Klinsmann represents the dream, the what-could-be for American football.  Klinsmann was a great player in his day, a part of a very talented German-led Inter Milan when Serie A was the hands-down greatest league in the world.  He was also a mainstay of the German National Team.  Klinsmann was a major part of the squad that won the 1990 World Cup (where he took one of the most notorious dives in history) and the 1996 European Championship.  In 2004, Klinsmann was named coach of the German National Team following the team’s terrible showing at that year’s European Championship.

Germany does not do terrible showings at international tournaments.  While all other nations, even Brazil, have highs and lows, Germany are always near the top.  Of the seventeen World Cups Germany entered (or West Germany before reunification), Die Mannschaft made the semifinals of all but five.  It was the Germans who beat the Hungarians in 1954 and the Dutch in 1974.  The English striker Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”

Germany are infamous for having no flair–not completely untrue, but exaggerated.  The back line is solid, the players are strong, the team just wears opponents down.  Germans are mentally tough (hence they always win when a match goes to penalty kicks.)  Every match is a battle of attrition.  The team is mechanical and efficient, sort of like the German people.  In fact, every stereotype you know about Germans (minus the Nazi stuff) is applicable to German football.

Klinsmann changed that, or at least started the change.  He brought in younger talent and focused on attacking play.  Critics in Germany, including Franz Beckenbauer, lambasted him.  They complained that he was a commuter coach (he lived in the United States), they moaned that he ignored the defense to concentrate on offense, and they expected that Germany would have a poor showing at the 2006 World Cup–in Germany.

The fears were unfounded.  Germany reached the World Cup semifinals before running into Italy, the national bête noire.  For some reason, Germany cannot beat Italy–a complete subversion of the off-pitch reality.  In the 2006 semifinal, after nearly 120 scoreless minutes, Germany collapsed and Italy scored twice.  Still, the German people were pleased with the 3rd place finish and wanted Klinsmann to stay.  Klinsmann resigned and was replaced by his assistant Joachim Löw, who continued both Germany’s style and success.  (Many say that Löw was the brains behind the team from the beginning and Klinsmann was just the face.)  Those with a sense of irony noted that in the 2010 World Cup, the great rivals Germany and Holland switched identities.

At the same time Klinsmann and Löw brought Germany success, the United States National Team crumbled.  As with all World Cups held in Europe, the US did not win a single match (the one draw was a first ever.)  This alone would have been terrible, but it was all the more so, given that just four years earlier, the team reached the quarterfinals where the US outplayed but narrowly lost to Germany.  Bruce Arena coached the US at both tournaments, and was sacked after the 2006 World Cup.

Although a bunch of names were thrown around, US fans wanted Klinsmann, and he in turn wanted to coach the US.  It seemed like a natural fit.  Klinsmann lived in California, he understood and followed both the American game and the world game, he was once one of the world’s top players, he knew how to win, and he was a successful coach.

Unfortunately, it did not work out between Klinsmann and the USSF.  The issues are unclear, although it appears that Klinsmann wanted total control, and Sunil Gulati did not want to give him that control.  As a result the US got Bob Bradley and Klinsmann ended up at Bayern Munich where he did not last a full season.  Klinsmann did not have a bad season by most standards, but Bayern is different.  Klinsmann wanted to rebuild the club, and Bayern agreed so long as it brought instant success.  Bayern, being Germany’s top dog, requires trophies every year, no excuses.  Klinsmann thought in long-term success; he wanted to remake Bayern’s image the way that Cruyff did for Barcelona and Wenger did for Arsenal.  However, his inability to meet the standards that the Bayern hierarchy and fans expected was his downfall.

During the 2010 World Cup, Klinsmann was an analyst for ESPN.  Following the US exit, he delivered on-air a brilliant dissertation on what is structurally wrong with soccer in the United States and what needs to be done to fix it (transcript here.)  This was a not-so-subtle advertisement that he wanted the US national team job.  Klinsmann thinks structurally rather than tactically, which is what the US needs.

The USSF was extremely displeased with the 2010 World Cup campaign, and Gulati barely concealed his anger.  To the angst of most American fans, Bradley’s contract was renewed, which means another four years because World Cups are (foolishly) the only things that matter to the USSF.

Apparently the USSF held talks with Klinsmann, but this is where the story gets tricky because it is a “he said/he won’t say” thing.  According to Klinsmann, the USSF verbally agreed to give him 100% control over basically everything team-related (nothing about youth development though.)  But Klinsmann also said that the USSF would not put it into writing, which meant that Gulati had no intention of giving Klinsmann that kind of control.  Gulati would not comment.  All of this left Bob Bradley even more emasculated than normal.

I tend to believe Klinsmann.  It is near certain that he will never coach the US National Team.  Nevertheless, I want to play devil’s advocate for just a bit.  Among US National Team fans, it is taken as a given that Klinsmann is the right choice.  More than that, there tends to be a belief that Klinsmann is the only alternative to Bob Bradley.  While I certainly believe that Klinsmann is a better alternative, I am concerned this diametric outlook both by US fans and the USSF.  It could well be that neither Klinsmann nor Bradley is a good choice.  Bradley we all understand, but few in this country scrutinize Klinsmann.  It has long been whispered that Löw and not Klinsmann was the tactician in 2006, and post-2006 results seem to back that up.  Furthermore, Klinsmann did not help his case at Bayern (one of the reasons for his sacking was taking Landon Donovan on loan.)  He made more than a few baffling decisions, and ultimately lost the locker room.

Even his now famous ESPN speech was not something completely original; others had said similar things before, although perhaps not as coherently or on as large a platform.  No nation has ever won a World Cup with a foreign-born coach (although given how Americanized Klinsmann has become, nationality seems less of an issue.)  To some extent, one could possibly even sympathize a tiny little bit with the USSF.  Because Klinsmann thinks structurally, his project would require several cycles to succeed if it does so at all, and any progress would hit major bumps along the way, especially since Klinsmann would lack the talent pool of Germany.

Furthermore, his complete control would inevitably cause conflict with MLS, which is something neither MLS nor the USSF want.  The Klinsmann obsession that so many US fans have reminds a bit of the Wenger-mania that plagues Arsenal fans except that Wenger actually has a history of sustained success and therefore has earned some of the free pass he is given.

The fact that the USSF only considered Klinsmann as an alternative to Bradley speaks volumes, and it should bother fans that no one else was considered.  There are other quality coaches out there; even the US produces them.  This lack of imagination calls into question the USSF’s desire to build a winning program.  Football hierarchies have a knack for killing the beautiful game.

I would love to see someone with Klinsmann’s vision, although I am not sure Klinsmann is the right choice.  I am also not sure that someone with his vision should be national coach, as opposed USSF president or director of development.  (I can be convinced though.  Please leave your comments.)  All I know is that the solution to the US woes ain’t Bob Bradley.

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3 responses to “Whence Klinsmann?

  1. Great post.

    Two quick thoughts: Klinsman’s record as a manager is a semifinal loss in a World Cup played with the home country advantage. That, it can be argued, was an under-performance. After that, he was fired from his job as coach of Bayern after it was thought that his team was under-performing.

    A lot has been made of Klinsman’s “upside-down pyramid” comments. Klinsman said that the approach to US soccer is “upside-down,” that parents want their kids to play soccer with the goal of getting a college scholarship, not playing professionally. Based on his statement, a “right side up” pyramid would consist of parents getting their kids to be good at soccer so they can play professionally. But the trajectory is the same: parents getting their kids involved in youth soccer with the goal of later gain. If the MLS expands and salaries continue to rise, US youth soccer – the largest pool in the world – will feed the MLS. So, it’s really not a matter of righting the pyramid; it’s a matter of a having a different result at the apex.

    Taken together, I don’t think Klinsman is the man.

  2. Thanks for commenting.

    The transcript is not complete, and I haven’t seen Klinsmann’s pyramid speech since it aired, but if I recall, what he was trying to say about it being upside-down pyramid was less about the progression and more about money and who spends it.

    In other words, in the US, in order to succeed at soccer, parents spend a lot of money when their children are young so that said children get college scholarships, whereas in the rest of the world, the money is spent by national federations to identify, train, and develop potential professionals (and it costs the parents nothing.) The ideal for American parents is that their child will get a scholarship for college, but the converse of that is that if you go to college you are not going to be a top-tier player.

    That’s why his comments about the inner cities were so pointed. He was blaming the USSF for making soccer prohibitively expensive for children from inner city (i.e. poor) communities whereas that is where the best players generally come from in the successful parts of the world (and also in basketball.)

    As for Klinsmann himself, I think your concerns about his results are valid, and obviously I share some of them myself. It goes to show the desperation that USSF has caused that there is such widespread faith in a man who has done relatively little.

  3. Ah, I see. Thanks for the explanation. I can see his point but while it’s true that teams like England have historically drawn many players from the working class, an argument can be made that that’s actually what’s holding it back (the ‘put your head down and try harder’ ethos). And I’d question a connection between poverty and ambition. It seems that access to the best coaches, best facilities, and the best nutrition that money can buy would be advantageous.
    But, even though I disagree with Klinsmann about the causes, I think he’s pointing in the right direction which is the severely lacking U.S. talent pool.

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