Tonight at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium, the U.S. National Team will host Belgium in a friendly. With some of the English Premier League’s brightest stars – Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, and Romelu Lukaku – Marc Wilmots’ Belgian side figures to give Jurgen Klinsmann’s American team a good test ahead of three crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers looming in June.
The friendly with Belgium will represent Klinsmann’s 26th match in charge of the U.S. since he was hired to replace Bob Bradley on July 29, 2011. Upon his hiring, Klinsmann, a German scoring legend, hinted that he would make sweeping changes throughout the American soccer system on every level.
It will also be his 26th different starting lineup.
In a way, that’s the most telling statistic when it comes to looking at the Klinsmann almost two-year reign in charge of the U.S.
There have been plenty of highs:
- A 0-0 draw vs. Mexico in World Cup qualifying in March.
- Defeating Mexico for the first time at the Azecta.
- A draw on the road with Russia.
- A win over Italy in a friendly.
And let’s not forget rock bottom:
There has even been an unprecedented level of behind-the-scenes turmoil triggered by a now infamous article by the Sporting News published in March where anonymous sources said in no uncertain terms the 48-year-old German coach didn’t know what he was doing.
So, when you stack together the mixed results and lack of tangible change from the previous regime, how do you assess the job by Klinsmann as he tries to guide the U.S. into the World Cup in Brazil next year? Much like his consistently varied lineups, it all depends on who you ask.
“The jury is still out to whether he has changed anything to how this team plays,” ESPN analyst and former U.S. standout Alexi Lalas said in a phone interview earlier this month with Big Lead Sports. “There’s a legitimate argument to whether the emperor has clothes or not.”
Contrast that to the opinion of Taylor Twellman – another former U.S. player who is also an ESPN analyst – and will call the Belgium game tonight alongside play-by-play legend Ian Darke.
“Alexi looks at it differently,” Twellman said. “I’ve always been, the National Team, you’re paid for results. You’re not paid to make sure there’s youth development. That’s done by a committee. If we’re going to rate a head coach, we’ll rate them on results based on the National Team, however this is Jurgen Klinsmann for U.S. Soccer. This is the one instance you have to look at it differently. He’s looked at it like a technical director, a youth director, trying to change the youth. Saying that, I think he’s gotten really good results.”
In the final round of CONCACAF qualification, the U.S. is 1-1-1 after its first three games, sitting in second place, a point behind surprise group leader Panama. This includes a loss on the road to Honduras, where the U.S. led 1-0, along with a draw at the Azteca against Mexico. On June 7, the U.S. travels to Kingston to play Jamaica and then has home games with Panama and Honduras. The U.S. is still is strong position for one of the three automatic berths to Brazil or – at worst – fourth place and a two-leg playoff with the Oceania qualifying winners, New Zealand.
The up-and-down results haven’t exactly created the persistent grumbling among large swathes of the U.S. fan base.
At issue, in getting many of these results, the U.S. has looked eerily similar to the team coached by Bob Bradley from 2006-2011, which also notched some famous international scalps, like Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. Under Klinsmann, the U.S. still remains a team that uses its speed to score on the counter-attack. Creating offense when the onus is one them, one of the criticisms of Bradley’s teams, is still an issue for the U.S. under Klinsmann. In three qualifiers this year the team has only two goals, both from Clint Dempsey.
Taken by itself, that’s not a big deal. International soccer remains a pass/fail business. The results are ultimately what matter, regardless of how ugly it looks – like the 1-0 win over Costa Rica in March in a driving snowstorm or a draw with Mexico, which Lalas made a point to call “beautiful” in the ESPN post-game that night.
“I see this team right now, and I go back to what he’s promised in that context I don’t necessarily think this team is that much better,” Lalas said. “I don’t see them playing any differently. When they had their most success in Mexico and in the snow, it’s the style we’ve known for for a long time. When it finally came down to it, to get a good result, it was in the most American way possible.”
Where the problem with Klinsmann arises is that when he was hired in the summer of 2011, he and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati talked up a big game of changing the American soccer culture on almost every level, especially the offensive mentality. There was also a large, vocal American soccer contingent who wanted Klinsmann – not Bradley – to replace Bruce Arena following the U.S. crashing out of the 2006 World Cup, theorizing the German World Cup-winner had the resume and worldliness as a player to guide the U.S. toward the elite level of international soccer. (Or at least past the Round of 16 in the World Cup.)
Go back and read through the quotes at his introductory press conference, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there including this nugget from the German:
“Every coach obviously has his own ideas, and then you have the whole challenge of youth soccer in this country being based on a very different model than anywhere else in the world. Your educational system is completely different than the rest of the world. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? Is it more proactive and aggressive, a forward-thinking style of play? Or is it more reacting style of play?”
At the moment it’d be difficult to pin an actual style on the U.S. under Klinsmann.
“This particular team has to be judged in the context of Jurgen Klinsmann from his pronouncements from the moment he took this job that he wanted the soccer culture to be looked at differently,” Lalas said. “To be, in his words, ‘more proactive.’ How that manifests on the field, is something we in the soccer community is constantly debating and searching for.”
It will take time – years – for the sweeping ideological changes Klinsmann talked about in 2011 to take hold, if ever. In the meantime they’ve painted him into a corner for the short term. No matter what he said at his introduction, Klinsmann was going to rely on a core of players put into place by Bradley like Dempsey, Tim Howard, and the former coach’s son, Michael. Klinsmann has found new players in German-Americans Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones, along with guys Graham Zusi, but the team still feels remarkably similar – at times – to Bradley in its ability to drift through a match only to snatch a result toward the end.
“He came in promising a changing of the guard and a change of style,” Twellman said. “When you hear fans, talk you’re expecting a change of everything, but the reality is (Klinsmann’s) gotten results playing the old style. What’s weird, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. … When I look at the U.S. how successful they’ve been, it’s been a certain way. I’m not naïve to think they can flip switch.”
Critics, too, have poked holes in Klinsmann’s coaching resume, saying that the third place finish he led Germany to at the 2006 World Cup was the product of playing on home soil or the work of his assistant, Joachim Loew. Or that he was completely in over his head during his one season coaching Bayern Munch, pointing to a quote from current German and Bayern captain Philipp Lahm that Klinsmann, “doesn’t do tactics.”
“If you believe that fundamental change is necessary, you not only have to start at the younger ages, but you have to be willing to forfeit a cycle for the World Cup for the greater good and that’s a difficult pill to swallow,” Lalas said. “If the U.S. isn’t (at a World Cup), the masses are going to say that’s unacceptable even if there’s a legitimate reason. I don’t think there’s a legitimate excuse to why the U.S. isn’t there. Nobody will care about the reasoning. We don’t have the soccer culture to understand.”
Former U.S. National Team captain John Harkes, now a radio host with SiriusXM FC’s drive-time Counter Attack program, takes a fairly simple approach to judging Klinsmann’s tenure.
“How you’ll be assessed as a manager is if you get the best out of the players you have,” Harkes said. “That’s like David Moyes at Everton. He got the best out of his players. At the end of the day, that’s how you define a manager. Did he get the best out of the talent he had?”
Taking that approach, Klinsmann has at least met some expectations.
For one, he’s had to juggle a string of injuries throughout his tenure, along with the self-imposed sabbatical from soccer by all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan earlier this year. Tonight vs. Belgium, for example, Anderlecht’s Sacha Kljestan will get a rare start in midfield since Michael Bradley was late to arrive in the U.S. camp after playing in the Coppa Italia final with Roma.
The age of the defense had been a question off the 2010 World Cup and it appears Klinsmann is finally making changes, including dropping former captain Carlos Bocanegra. It hasn’t helped that presumptive right backs Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler have battled nagging injuries, forcing Geoff Cameron into a wide position when he seemed to be a future option in the middle of defense. Who would have thought DaMarcus Beasley (on the verge of his 100th cap) would still have a role with the team as a makeshift left back or that the team would draw Mexico at the Azteca with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler starting in central defense along with Brad Guzan in goal?
Klinsmann’s also dealt with inconsistent form from Jozy Altidore, who’s scored 31 goals this year playing for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie – a record for Americans in Europe – yet hasn’t tallied an international goal since late 2011.
Still, however you want to qualify it closing in on his two-year anniversary as U.S. coach it still feels like the Klinsmann era – for all its early optimism and California New Age cool – has still been underwhelming. It often seems like the U.S. isn’t all that much unchanged from when Bradley was in charge and the former coach never struggled to get the U.S. to the 2010 World Cup. Those pining for a foreign-born coach who could transform the U.S. team from effective grinders to free-flowing, tika-taka wizards, have yet been unfulfilled as unrealistic as that expectation might have been in the first place. It’s almost as unrealistic as thinking one man could change the entire soccer culture in geographically huge nation of 300+ million people.
“As a whole I don’t think we’ve seen what Jurgen’s promised, but my assessment is that he’s paid for results. He must qualify for the World Cup and he’ll be judged on the Word Cup. I don’t think the national team coach should be worried too much about the U-17 team,” Twellman said. “He’s the exception to the rule, he’ll be judged on the collective whole.”
For some fans, guiding the team to Brazil it will constitute a job done, while others will be left wanting more.
Guiding to the U.S. to Brazil next summer is the minimal expectation when Klinsmann was hired. Failing to do that would derail over two decades of progress made by soccer in America. That terrifying notion, although unlikely, is perhaps why U.S. fans are so antsy when it comes to Klinsmann.
In the end the emperor might not have any clothes, but he better be able to fake it well enough to get the United States on a plane headed for Rio next June.