It appears Jürgen Klinsmann and the USMNT have arrived in the mainstream. Maybe not in the way Sunil Gulati, Klinsmann or anyone else close to the program would have wanted, but it happened when a lengthy takedown piece from Sporting News reporter Brian Straus hit the Internet Tuesday morning. Reaction was harsh and swift from critics that might only pay attention once every four years, causing brows to get a little sweatier among an already nervous fanbase.
Perhaps I’m calloused or spoiled by living in Boston, where anonymous sources root out overweight and overpaid pitchers just dominating copious amounts chicken and beer in the Red Sox clubhouse, but I didn’t think the revelations were all that earth-shattering. Team discord is, unfortunately, all too common. That said, it does position the upcoming qualifiers as even more important to the Klinsmann era than before. Lose and he might lose more than a few fans. He might lose his team.
Here are five other thoughts on the accusations levied against Klinsmann and the dynamics of his USMNT charges.
1. Carlos Bocanegra Tossed to the Curb
Frankly speaking, this is the most damaging information the piece has to offer on the Klinsmann era. Even before the internal issues surrounding the captain’s demotion were made public, it had a strange stink to it. It was generally though that Bocanegra would be on the team come then World Cup, even if he was largely a passenger by 2014. His service to the team and leadership were far too valuable.
What the Sporting News reveals is that Klinsmann indeed saw the value of that leadership. However, his flippant treatment of the demotion — asking Bocanegra to deliver a speech soon after condemning him to the bench, described as “driving the knife in” by one unnamed source — is a major black mark against the coach. As the piece points out, that kind of disrespect for the elder statesmen alone is enough to lose a team. Coupled that with general issues of institutional control and potentially deeper locker room division, and it might be enough to topple an already lilting ship.
2. Klinsmann Wasn’t Hired for his Tactics
Gulati hired Klinsmann to install cultural change from top to bottom. Sure, his teams play a more appealing style than the counterattacking monotony of Bill Bradley, but that was mental and cultural as much as tactical. His commitment to holistic individual building and other zen-like characteristics, while maybe less than popular among some disgruntled players, was on the docket when he was hired. This is no surprise.
Knowing this, Gulati should have perhaps pushed Klinsmann to look beyond Martin Vasquez for his No. 2. Even Vasquez himself would probably not compare himself to Joachim Löw, the tactical mastermind for Klinsmann’s Germany team, and it would be foolish to think he could fill that role.
3. High School Locker Room Drama
We probably should be less surprised by the German-American divide in the locker room. However, even Straus notes that cliques are very common on almost every team. In fact, although I can’t find the link, I remember reading before the last world cup that there was cliques with that team as well– although it wasn’t framed as divisive, merely just a matter of who got along better as friends, not as coworkers so to speak — mostly along class and racial lines. That’s an entirely separate issue with US soccer to get into on another day, but the largely white, middle class player dominates the sport in America more than any other place in the world, where soccer is a working class game. To expect these social dynamics to be any different when another distinct group begins to join the locker room would be naive. Yet as long as they come together as one team, it’s fine.
While cliques themselves may be largely harmless, the deeper seeds of resentment that Straus appears to uncover are far more unsettling. It’s easy to see the logic behind the view of the German-born players having less pride in the US cause, even if it’s not true. When other players begin to see those players as almost having an individualistic, almost mercenary approach — again, regardless of it bearing out in practice — it can derail a team. Klinsmann places that burden, with a quote on the record mind you, on his players. While not entirely wrong, if he senses that discord building it is up to him, the coach, to step in and do what he can to remedy the situation.
4. Chaos Breeds More Chaos
The lack of continuity in the Klinsmann era is nothing new for the USMNT. As Straus notes, 23 lineups in 23 games (soon to be 24 in 24) is not entirely the coaches fault. Various friendlies present the opportunity to get to know players who might otherwise not get a shot. Injuries and club commitments can wreak havoc on any team. Even matchups and temporary form can play a sizable role in who gets the nod for a given match. But at some point, the merry-go-round has to stop.
Perhaps it will be when Landon Donovan — who has expressed an interest in suiting up for the USMNT again in the future — finally makes his return. It could provide a solution to both continuity and leadership issues that cripple the team today. Qualifying is still in its early stages, but by the end of March the United States could be stuck in a dire situation. If this is the case, and probably even if it isn’t, Klinsmann can’t confuse chaos and confusion for motivation. His 11 guys should know who they are. Roles should be defined. Maybe he just needs time to find his best, but, more than 18 months after being hired, that deadline is fast approaching.
5. Klinsmann’s Blind Commitment to the Process
It has long been established that the role of Klinsmann is sweeping change up and down US soccer. That was much less the case for Bradley, though he never had real issues qualifying, and his 2010 team served as a uniting force. Now, however, it is, as Klinsmann hammers home at every chance, about moving the entire program forward. Thanks the financial commitment, $2.5 million, Klinsmann is largely untouchable. Couple this with potentially unreasonable expectations — as Gulati said, “people are going to expect [him] to walk across the East River” — and it creates a strange concoction.
Bigger goals and long-term security may give Klinsmann more assumed freedom to live and die by his whim — much to the chagrin of the players, if Straus’ sources are to be believed — but it still does not allow total ignorance to the present. A blind committment to that future jeopardizes the here and now. While Tab Ramos and Claudio Reyna have, by all reports, done an admirable job of installing a coordinated message in the younger players, it’s not always as easy to change the veterans that make up the true meat of the program. If Klinsmann loses them, and possibly loses what seemed like a guaranteed ticket to Brazil, he might lose the entire system all together.
That said, the players do have to buy in, but Klinsmann has to be willing to make the occasional concession if that is to happen in the long run. If he can orchestrate a haul of four points — or even six — from the Costa Rica and Mexico games, he might just be able to win back that confidence.
It’s a cliché as old as sport itself, but sometimes it still holds true. Winning can cure most anything.