Off the top of your head, has anyone in sports had quite the narrative turnaround in 2013 as U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann? In February pretty much everyone decided the German-born World Cup winner as a player didn’t know what he was doing as a coach in the wake of a loss to Honduras and a damning article published by the Sporting News. Fast forward to today and the bulk of U.S. soccer fans are head-over-heels in love with Klinsmann — or at least his bold sideline fashion choices – after he led the U.S. to 12 straight wins, a Gold Cup triumph and, oh right, another berth in the World Cup.
Now out of the blue, the U.S. Soccer Federation extended Klinsmann’s contract four more years, meaning he could be in place all the way until the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Equally as important, the extension makes Klinsmann the Technical Director of U.S. Soccer. SI’s Grant Wahl suspects Klinsmann received a raise, bumping his salary closer to $3 million per year.
The obvious conclusion to draw from the surprise timing of the extension — less than a week after the 2014 World Cup draw — is the Federation has faith in Klinsmann beyond what he does in Brazil. The U.S. was lumped into the Groups of Death with Germany, Portugal and longtime nemesis Ghana. That might be a little too simplistic. It’s hard to fathom U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati is thinking, yeah sure Jurgen, lose all three games in Brazil, upset the American public — again — we’ll be glad to have you back another four years.
If the U.S. goes three-and-out in Brazil, looking poor in the process, the heat might end up transferred to Gulati for his decision to extend Klinsmann when he didn’t have any pressure to do so. You could even argue, if you’re an absolutist, that all that counts for the U.S. National Team coach is what he does during those three group games in the World Cup. (Gulati & Co. see it otherwise, re: the Technical Director position.)
More practically, extending Klinsmann beyond the World Cup independent of results keeps him focused 100 percent on his task at hand, rather than potentially looking for his next employer. These are best taken with a grain of salt, but Klinsmann name does pop up from time-to-time in the European rumor mills. There was no validity to it, but when Tottenham coach Andre Villas-Boas was under pressure a few weeks ago, Klinsmann’s name cropped up since he played at White Hart Lane in the 90s. The extension keeps any of these unneeded distractions and puts the focus firmly on finding a way to navigate out of a very tricky group.
Coaching through two World Cup cycles is rare. The lifespan of an international coach is short, although Bruce Arena took the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002 before a flameout four years later in Germany. Bob Bradley coached past the 2010 World Cup, ended by Ghana in the Round of 16, but was fired in July 2011 following the humbling 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
Bigger picture, the technical director role bears much closer watching since U.S. Soccer has cast its lot with Klinsmann for the foreseeable future. When he took over the job, that was the big selling point he made: moving U.S. Soccer from a reactive, counter-attacking team to one that plays on the front foot and takes it to the opposition in an attractive, attacking manner. We saw shades of this during the summer when the team rolled through qualifying and the Gold Cup with almost two different rosters. The success of the National Team, especially with many key members already north of 30, isn’t the greatest indicator of the federation’s overall health.
Changes, the one Klinsmann has talked about during his tenure start at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. The U.S. under-age teams have had a mixed record, including failing to qualify for the Olympics as well as the U-17 World Cup recently.
Four more years of Klinsmann also ensures the net will continued to be cast for dual-nationals, capable of representing the U.S. or another country on the senior international level, such as Aron Johannsson and Fabian Johnson. The next one of these guys to keep an eye on will be Bayern Munich’s Julian Green, who was born in Tampa, Fla., but moved to Germany and has represented them at the U-19 level most recently.
Given the wild fluctuation the Klismann has already produced, the way everyone feels about this extension right now in the days leading up to Christmas and, say, July 1 are going to be two wildly different opinions.
For better or worse, Gulati cast his lot with with Klinsmann. It’s up to the coach to deliver in June and beyond.