This piece was originally published on Medium, and you can read that version here.
Is it possible for something to be both entirely expected and a massive surprise? It feels like the kind of thing they would have a word for in German. If so, Jurgen Klinsmann may be the man to ask after he lost his job as the manager of the United States men’s team this week.
It’s entirely expected because the US just suffered back-to-back World Cup 2018 qualifying defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica. Yet it’s a massive surprise because the country is generally seen as being sober and realistic in terms of managerial expectations. Managerial upheaval isn’t really done.
Klinsmann was just the third man to manage the side since 1996. His predessor Bob Bradley had four years in the job, and before him Bruce Arena — who will return to the post to replace Klinsmann — had eight.
Speaking after the 4–0 loss to Costa Rica, Klinsmann did not sound like a man under pressure. He spoke eloquently and calmly of the peaks and troughs of the international football cycle, and maintained that his young charges would peak in time for the World Cup. If he knew the chop was coming, the German boss hid it well.
Klinsmann’s stint in the US dugout was book-ended by poor form, but he had highs in the middle. World Cup 2014 was arguably the peak. The tournament will always be remembered fondly by American soccer fans after they qualified from the “Group of Death” comprised of Germany, Portugal and Ghana. In the Round of 16, the USA took a talented Belgium side all the way. A 0–0 draw after 90 minutes (with Tim Howard in inspirational form) ended with a 2–1 defeat after extra time, but Klinsmann hard running side impressed everyone with their Stakhanovite workrate.
He also led them to a Gold Cup victory in 2013, and a respectable fourth place in the Copa America Centenao. But Klinsmann’s role wasn’t limited to on-field matters. Essentially combining the role of manager and technical director, the German wanted to revolutionise the national set-up. Part of his plans were to use his connections in his home country to cast the net wider than normal for US-qualified players.
His regime saw the likes of German-born Fabian Johnson, Julian Green and John Brooks get regular call-ups, while German based Americans like Bobby Wood and wonderkid Christian Pulisic also received more attention than they might have under an American coach.
The question now for a lot of Klinsmann’s German cadre is what happens next. Is it overreaching a bit to suggest the political isolationism espoused by President elect Donald Trump might be reflected in the future make-up of the national side? Certainly there are many in America uneasy about being represented by players born — or even playing — outside of their shores. Women’s soccer legend Abby Wambach articulated that view when she stated:
“The way that he has changed and brought in a bunch of these foreign guys is not something I believe in wholeheartedly.”
Wambach may find an ally in incoming boss Bruce Arena. The successful boss is steeped in MLS culture, and he may well look a lot closer to home when it comes to his call-ups. That said, he would be wise to retain the best players that Klinsmann brought in, regardless of where they were born.
Besides, he has pressing issues that won’t be solved easily. The goalkeeping position — usually an area of such strength — looks shaky, with Tim Howard showing his age and Brad Guzan still struggling for any kind of form (in a run that stretches back to last season). He also may have a conundrum of whether or not to pick the now un-retired Landon Donovan. The 34-year-old famously didn’t see eye-to-eye with Klinsmann and was very publicly dropped for World Cup 2014. The LA Galaxy man may be a long way from his peak, but the talent pool is thin. With Arena and Donovan in tandem, the US could really be rolling back the years.
Time will tell if the decision to end the Klinsmann project early was due to panic over some bad results, or the country cutting their losses on a failing experiment. Bruce Arena has a good record, but he won’t be a silver bullet. The American national team has problems that run deeper than just the manager. It will be interesting to see if Arena can solve them — and how much time he will get to do so.