The Jurgen Klinsmann experiment has failed for U.S. soccer. The stats and results prove that it’s time to move on.
A few weeks ago U.S. Soccer announced that Jurgen Klinsmann has been fired and relieved of both his technical director and head coaching duties for the USMNT. Klinsmann was hired in 2011 after then head coach Bob Bradley failed to win the Gold Cup tournament as the U.S. lost in the final 4-2 to Mexico.
Upon his hire, Jurgen promised to revolutionize American soccer and ultimately bring the national team to a new level. Five years later it is abundantly clear that the U.S. has not progressed, but rather regressed under the German’s tenure.
Jurgen has achieved nothing in competitive games that previous U.S. coaches have not also done. On the negative side it’s been quite revolutionary. The U.S. has suffered historic and embarrassing losses to the likes of Jamaica, Guatemala, and Mexico in competitive games.
This article will address the failures and perceived accomplishments of Jurgen’s years in charge.
Let’s briefly list some of the historic losses under Jurgen in competitive matches:
2012: 2-1 to Jamaica in Kingston in World Cup qualifying
- 2015: 2-1 to Jamaica at home in the Gold Cup semi final
- 2015: PK loss to Panama in the bronze medal game (Gold Cup)
- 2015: 3-2 to Mexico
- 2016: 2-0 to Guatemala in qualifying
- 2016: 2-1 Mexico in Columbus
- 2016: 4-0 to Costa Rica in qualifying
Okay now let’s take a look at historic wins in competitive games:
2014: 2-1 against Ghana, our first ever win against the Black Stars
To put things in perspective, the defeat to Jamaica in 2012 was our first ever loss to them and the 2015 loss was our first home loss to them. The semifinal defeat also ended an impressive run of the U.S. reaching five Gold Cup finals in a row. The Gold Cup debacle was exacerbated as the U.S. lost out to Panama for the bronze medal, making the fourth place finish the team’s worst ever finish at the tournament in the modern era.
The inability to win the Gold Cup resulted in the team needing to play Mexico in a playoff to reach the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. The tournament serves as a precursor to the World Cup, and has become a top priority of the USMNT ever since the U.S. reached the 2009 final, where it narrowly lost 3-2 to Brazil.
Unfortunately, the U.S. lost 3-2 in extra time to Mexico in the playoff. The loss was the American’s first loss to Mexico since 2011.
Losing to the likes of Jamaica and Mexico may be deflating, but the March of 2016 2-0 defeat to Guatemala was mortifying and humiliating. Guatemala’s quality over the years has greatly deteriorated. The Central Americans narrowly beat amateur side Bermuda 1-0 after tying them 0-0 in the first leg to advance to the next round of qualifying. The result was the American’s first loss to Guatemala since 1988.
Nearly all of Guatemala’s players play in their domestic league, a lower level league plagued with issues such as players being payed late. With players in the Bundesliga, EPL, and yes even MLS and Liga MX (both leagues are far superior to the Guatemala league), the result was inexcusable.
Despite the loss to Guatemala, the U.S. advanced to the final round of qualifying, coined the Hex. The round began in November, where for the first time ever the U.S. opened with two losses.
The first blow came in a 2-1 heart breaker to Mexico in Columbus. It was the Americans’ first ever loss in Columbus and the first home qualifying loss to Mexico since 1972. The loss ended a run of four consecutive 2-0, dos a cero, wins against Mexico in Columbus. This disaster of a game was followed up with a 4-0 shellacking to Costa Rica in the away fixture.
The margin of defeat made it the worst U.S. qualifying loss since 1957.
Lastly, in regards to results, you may have noticed that the term “competitive fixtures” excludes meaningless friendlies. Therefore a 2-1 win against German reserves is not included in the win section of results as friendlies can produce more upsets as sides tend not to use their best players.
Philip Lahm, former captain of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning side, famously called out Klinsmann’s lack of tactics in his book. Lahm noted that Jurgen hardly ever engaged in tactical preparation, instead focusing on vague motivational points like “be more aggressive.” This led to players having to meet by themselves in order to discuss tactics.
Klinsmann’s failure to properly prepare tactics and get results triggered his unceremonious firing at Bayern Munich.
It appears that he did not learn his lesson as reports circulated that he did not prepare tactics with the USMNT either. Nagbe, considered one of the most technically gifted American players, stated that he would no longer accept call ups to the national side as Jurgen never gives tactical instructions, only calling for players to “believe” and be more “physical.”
No doubt the decision by Nagbe was a difficult one as the Liberian born player waited eagerly to receive American citizenship so that he could play for the country that he loves.
Klinsmann’s lack of tactical awareness was exemplified in the Mexico game.
Under Klinsmann’s instruction, the U.S. started in a 3-5-2 formation, a formation that they used for only 45 minutes in a friendly in the past few years. The new lineup left players in an unfamiliar position and was a puzzling departure from the 4-4-2 that led to relative success at the Copa América.
The purpose of friendlies is to experiment with players and unusual formations; crucial World Cup qualifiers are not the proper platform for abnormal formations.
Under the 3-5-2 Mexico dominated the U.S. as the Americans looked lost on the field. It was around the 30th minute that during an injury break, Micheal Bradley and Jermaine Jones approached Klinsmann and demanded to switch back to the usual 4-4-2. The request was reluctantly granted by Jurgen, who up to that point had been sitting on the bench looking like a confused gazelle.
Multiple media outlets reported this development, and some even questioned “why the hell do we have Klinsmann” when Bradley and Jones were effectively coaching the team by adjusting the tactics. Upon switching formations, the U.S. scored in the 48th minute and dominated a Mexico side that was on the back foot.
While pressing for a late winner, Klinsmann substituted on Orozco Fiscal… a defender. The substitution did not come from an injury, but rather it was Klinsmann settling for a draw at home against Mexico. The U.S. have a history of always beating Mexico at home qualifiers, so the mentality that a draw is good enough is pathetic.
Mexico went on to snatch a late winner in the 89th minute as miscommunication occurred in the American defense on a corner.
2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa América
Defenders of Klinsmann may concede that the aforementioned losses are inexcusable, but they may ask what about the World Cup and Copa América?
This is a fair question to pose considering that those two tournaments are considered relative successes for the USMNT program.
The World Cup group in Brazil for the U.S. composed of Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, a tricky group to say the least. The U.S. beat Ghana 2-1, tied Portugal 2-2, and lost 1-0 to Germany. These results were just enough for the U.S. to move on where it lost to Belgium 2-1 in extra time in the Round of 16.
The U.S. played with heart and energy throughout the competition, however, the side failed to replicate the 2002 run where it nearly made the semifinals; it remains the side’s best finish in recent World Cup history. In other words, the U.S. finish in 2014 was nothing that had not been accomplished before.
It should also be noted that the U.S. were fortuitous that Germany thrashed Portugal 4-0 and Portugal beat Ghana 2-1; these outcomes allowed the U.S. to advance on four points on goal difference. This is not meant to take anything away from the finish, just to point out that the U.S. did not run away with the group and did not advance by its own merits.
As for the Copa América, the U.S. beat Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Ecuador, while it lost to Argentina and Colombia twice. This allowed the U.S. to finish fourth, a solid finish in a challenging tournament.
However, the teams that the U.S. beat are teams that it should be expected to beat at home, and the teams it lost to are teams that it would be expected to lose to. Ecuador and Costa Rica are solid sides, as their recent World Cup qualifying form suggests, but they are no Argentina, meaning the U.S. should beat them at home.
The U.S. also finished fourth in the 1995 Copa América in Uruguay. It is more difficult to make the semifinals in a Copa América in South American conditions than on home soil.
Why make mention of this? Klinsmann promised to revolutionize the program, and the Copa América and World Cup finishes (which were good) are nothing new to the program.
Additionally, the lows outweigh the highs for the team. Under Jurgen, the team has not accomplished anything remarkable result wise, but it has achieved historic losses, indicating regression.
Tactical deficiencies and poor results aside, credit must be given to where credit is due. In addition to being coach of the side, Klinsmann was also hired to revamp the youth program and bring in new players. In this category he did achieve a level of success, although there were also some downsides.
Result wise, U.S. youth teams have done fairly poor overall in the past five years. Since Klinsmann was given a degree of control over the whole program, the U.S. U23 team failed to qualify for two consecutive Olympics for the first time in nearly 50 years. Additionally, in 2013 the U.S. U17 side failed to qualify for the U17 World Cup for the first time ever.
The one strong performance by a U.S. youth team came in 2015 when the U.S. U20 team nearly made the U20 World Cup semifinals. The Americans were knocked out in the quarterfinals following an insane penalty kick shootout to eventual champions Serbia.
To what degree Klinsmann managed to change the overall setup of American youth teams in terms of training procedures and scouting is difficult to determine and may not be known for years to come. More visible is Jurgen’s willingness to try out lesser known players.
Under Klinsmann several younger players were given a chance with the national team that other coaches may not have bothering giving a look. Such players include Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood.
Wood was already involved with the U.S. setup as the Hawaii-born forward played for the U.S. U20 team in 2011. However, his career stalled as he was unable to get consistent playing time for 1860 Munich. Klinsmann called Wood in for a few friendlies, Wood played well, signed for another club in the German second division, and now has signed for Hamburg in the Bundesliga where he is scoring goals.
Morris’ case may be more extraordinary. Jordan Morris was a mere college player when Klinsmann first saw him. Despite his lack of professional experience, Morris was called into national team camp and scored a goal in one of his early appearances.
Following impressive showings with the U.S. team, Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders for the 2016 season. Despite a slow start, Morris grew as the season went on and became an instrumental part in the Sounders winning MLS Cup.
Not every player called in made the impact that Wood and Morris did. Some players like Miguel Ibarra did not pan out to be a hidden gem. Ibarra was playing for Minnesota in the American second division when Jurgen called him in, and despite a move to Liga MX, Ibarra has not shown to be a national team caliber player.
Most American fans would agree that even if not all off-radar players like Ibarra produce, experimenting with new players is a good thing, especially if it brings in players like Morris and Wood.
There remain some key, and stunning, stats of the overall picture that should be acknowledged from Klinsmann’s rein.
Under Klinsmann as coach the U.S. has the worst record in 20 years against opponents ranked in FIFA’s top 20 in competitive games.
Perhaps more depressing is that his side has led teams in the top 10 for less time than other teams, indicating that his side as not even been close to beating these teams generally speaking.
If the likes of Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, and Bob Bradley coached the U.S. to better results, with arguably less talented squads with less overall depth, than Jurgen has failed to progress the side. If the U.S. were getting better results in 1998 with Sampson at the helm then the side has regressed substantially.
Looking Ahead to Arena
Bruce Arena, who coached the U.S. 1998-2006, has been hired to lead the team to the summer of 2018.
Many consider it a “step back,” and perhaps on paper it is as Arena is not a new face. However, consider this, no CONCACAF team that has lost its first two Hex games has ever finished in the top three in qualifying.
The top three North American sides qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth place team will play the fifth place team from Asia this time around. This means there is little margin for error for the U.S. side as missing out on the 2018 World Cup is a real possibility.
With this in mind, it is clear that Arena is the safe choice. A new coach would experience a learning curve with the players and CONCACAF qualifying in general. Arena on the other hand has been there, done that. Bruce already knows many of the players and has experienced qualifying in two cycles first hand; he knows how to handle it.
After 2018 we can discuss who should lead the team and if a “revolution” is needed, but now we need Arena to dig us out of the hole that Klinsmann has put us in and get the USMNT to Russia.
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