When it comes to the early years of the Premier League, there are few images more iconic than that of Jurgen Klinsmann airborne, arms outstretched in a celebratory dive. This goal celebration soon became synonymous with Klinsi and his first Tottenham spell. It originated as a sly dig at the British press, who had greeted his signing – which would ultimately be a watershed movement in foreign stars gracing British shores – with mockery of his perceived fondness of going to ground.
One of the wittier items of coverage came in one of the Red Tops (I think it was The Sun but can’t be sure). Originally published during the 1990 World Cup, it was a parody side-panel entitled “Doing the Klinsmann” and depicted a diagram with illustrations of Jurgen’s diving technique and what pained expressions to adopt while pretending to be poleaxed. In 1994 it received a second outing, under a caption along the lines of “What Tottenham can expect from their new signing:”.
Whether the characterization was harsh or not, there is a figurative parallel here, with his time as coach of the US Men’s National Team. All too often, when greeted with an obstacle or situation, JK will forgo testing his skillset, instinct and knowledgeand instead elect to cry foul and point the finger.
From day one, the US Coach has remonstrated eagerly about the deficiencies of American soccer. Upon arrival, he immediately briefed the watching world on the need to move to a more proactive style, for a change in US soccer culture and for the team to get “nasty”.
If he makes it, it will be five years in July since he took the helm. “Proactive” is probably the furthest you’ll get from an appropriate adjective to the current US playing style. If the culture has changed, it’s gone from one of gritty determination, athleticism and playing as more than the sum of their parts, to one of endless tinkering, stagnating progress and players looking more awkward and confused than Geraldo Rivera in Al Capone’s vault.
To anybody that follows the USMNT, the timing of this entry will be obvious. A few days past the first loss to Guatemala since 1988, World Cup qualification stands on tiptoe over a vast abyss. This regime has been here before of course. In 2012 a defeat to Jamaica at the same stage, saw the US in a similar position. They of course recovered, winning all three remaining games and reaching the final 6-team “Hexagonal” group, which they eventually topped.
It will probably happen again this time and if we were still under a Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena regime, that would likely be adequate. However, we are now five years into a “process” that was meant to be something more. Though Bradley was grinding out results most of the time, the feeling was that the program “wasn’t progressing”. When a strong Mexico overhauled a 2-0 American lead in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final to win with a comfortable 4-2 scoreline, it was decided that Bob’s time was done and that it was time to go in a more ‘ambitious’ direction.
Truth be told, USSF President, Sunil Gulati had wanted Klinsmann over Bradley back in 2007 but hadn’t been able to get his man. This time he did. Not only did JK get the coaches position, he was also given a Technical Director role, clearly in the hope that he could make similar transformational changes to the US as he reputedly had in Germany.
These days, the idea of grinding out results with players in a bunkering cocoon formation, relying on the odd moment of magic from a Donovan or a Dempsey, feels like a comfy Paradise Lost.
The parallels with the past regime are there to be seen: like 2010, the 2014 World Cup performance was solid but unspectacular, possibly picking up a bit more luster from being drawn into (and progressing from) a perceived “Group of Death” that wasn’t as tough as billed.
Then came some lackluster performances in the 2015 Gold Cup albeit with enough to get through the rounds. Where history dovetails is in the latter stages of that tournament. BB had reached the final and lost to an in-form Mexico. Klinsi lost out to Jamaica in the semis. Of course, this was more disappointing than catastrophic. Even the best teams lose out to weaker opposition from time-to-time. The clunky performance in the earlier rounds nagged though. The US would need to calm some nervous followers with a decent account in the 3rd place playoffs.
They lost to Panama on penalties and event that flattered them.
Next up came the newly created CONCACAF Cup. Essentially a playoff between the last two Gold Cup winners to determine the region’s representative at the Confederations Cup, the US would take on Mexico for the honour. And lose.
While it was an extra-time victory, closer scrutiny showed this to be a painful showing. Mexico dominated. The US had been massively out-shot. This latter point was getting to be a common theme, even against some of the less prestigious opponents. Suddenly Tim Howard’s record number of saves in the WC elimination against Belgium was looking less like an achievement and more like an indicator of how long things had been slipping. Now a tie against Trinidad and Tobago and a Loss against Guatemala. Arena or Bradley would likely have already been shown the door after the 2015 GC display.
Klinsmann’s response? If the US performances were an opposing defender, JK elected not to jink past it but to kick his heel together and free-fall to the turf, only breaking a feigned grimace to mime the production of a card.
When asked why the team had started so flat against Guatemala and conceded two goals so early, Klinsi retorted that the journalist “ask the players”.
When pressed on why he insists on putting players in roles that they don’t typically fill for their clubs, he denied that they were deployed out of position.
This isn’t new. It is Klinsmann’s MO. In almost five years, it has never been his fault.
Michael Bradley, an accomplished midfielder who on his day can hold his own at any level, was suddenly deployed during the WC not in his familiar holding role but as an attacking midfielder. As a result, he was noticably out-of-sorts and had a disappointing tournament. When it this was raised, Klinsmann implied that perhaps his move to MLS had effected his game negatively.
In his early days, he placated the masses with claims that this was a long term learning process. The aforementioned “change of culture”.
When the media finally started to be a bit more challenging, he chose to simply patronise them with the observation that this was good, because people were starting to notice the team and make the kinds of demands other national coaches faced from the press every day.
Towards the end of the CONCACAF Cup game, Fabian Johnson felt a twinge and asked to be subbed. Klinsmann promptly threw him under the bus by claiming the player wanted to be taken off as a precaution, so as not to be injured for his club. Upon returning to Moenchengladbach, they confirmed that FJ was indeed hurt.
Unfortunately, we’re so used to JK’s press conferences setting up players against an imaginary firing club that it isn’t even shocking.
The Donovan controversy has been covered elsewhere.
Of the dwindling numbers still throwing out arguments in Klinsmann’s defence, chief among them is the strength of the player pool. That might be arguable when defeats come against Mexico or Belgium. However, whatever issues the pool may have, it’s laughable to suggest that the personnel are not there to overcome Jamaica and Guatemala.
A mass of contradictions, JK will lament Dempsey and Bradley returning to MLS but thinks nothing of calling rookie Julian Green from loans to regional leagues in Germany. He will staunchly stick by certain players to a fault, while the rest of the USMNT roster looks like a giant revolving door. Grumbles about unnecessary fitness training (that first reared their head when he was coaching Bayern), odd deployment of players, questionable call-ups… and yet it could all be tolerated, if not forgiven, if there was even the hint of a sign that we might be headed somewhere. That there was movement or progress or any sense of change.
Instead, it’s all just a mass of confusion and the real kick in the teeth is that on the few occasions when the US does pull out a big result these days, it’s often because they’ve huddled back into the bunkering cocoon and thrashed it out.
Almost five years on, with an unprecedented amount of control over the program, with unprecedented patience spent by the fan base, I’m not even sure we’ve progressed a single step…