By Ridge Mahoney
In one fell swoop, Sunil Gulati killed a huge chunk of national-team discussion for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of what happens in Brazil next June, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann ain’t going anywhere. A four-year extension to his current contract strips away any speculation about Jason Kreis, Dominic Kinnear, Peter Vermes, Sigi Schmid, Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Steve Sampson, Rafael Benitez and just about everybody else connected to the job, no matter how tenuously. The Klinsmann Era will continue, and while any coach can be bought out of a contract at any point in his tenure, the track record of U.S. Soccer is not to wreak changes unless drastic measures are mandatory.
It’s a strange and ironic move in one important aspect. Klinsmann has repeatedly lectured on the importance of keeping the players, no matter how valuable, under pressure: pressure to perform at club level, pressure to maintain high standards of motivation and commitment, and pressure to produce for the USA.
By handing him four more years, the U.S. Soccer president has effectively freed Klinsmann from the same parameters. The days of the national team and its head coach being primarily judged on how they do in the World Cup are apparently over, or at least suspended for a time. In terms of results, winning the Gold Cup and topping the Hexagonal in the same year is sufficient. In terms of transforming the team into something better than it is, there’s apparently been enough progress to satisfy U.S. Soccer.
Much more is at play than results, since the contract extension is accompanied by the role and responsibilities of technical director. Is Gulati thus bailing out Klinsmann in the wake of a tough World Cup draw while also buttressing his insistence on hiring the former German international in the first place? He is, but Gulati is also bonding the short-term – World Cup performance – to long-range benchmarks of player scouting and development.
If there’s going to be any real transformation, Klinsmann will need time as well as the vast resources and authority he’s been given. How his influence can mold the work done at the U-17 and U-20 levels is still pending. Now officially installed as TD, he can push forward on all fronts and plan for 2018 as well as next year.
Though he’s been national-team coach for more than two years, Klinsmann has needed every day to assess his player pool and come to grips with its strengths and limitations while tracking performances in more than a dozen leagues. He’s ridden out criticism of an over-reliance on German-based players and the inevitable howls from fans and journalists bemoaning the absence of their favorites who, of course, given the chance are exactly what the coach needs to transform the USA into Brazil, or at least Barcelona.
He’s also undergone a crash course in Concacaf and given the results of 2013 he has to be given an "A-minus" even though he didn’t ace every test. Counting the Gold Cup, the U.S. blitzed regional opposition with a 13-2-1 record (35 goals scored, 12 conceded) and while the quality of opponents can be criticized a national team coach is largely judged by results in games that count.
Critics will see disquieting similarities despite changes in personnel. Are left-footed, long balls out of the back any better when delivered by Matt Besler instead of Carlos Bocanegra? Is dependency on older versions of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan a sign of progress? Is Jermaine Jones just a more rugged and reckless version of Ricardo Clark? Can converted midfielders in any era -- DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Evans, Geoff Cameron, Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Bornstein -- really be trusted at the World Cup?
Fortunately, Klinsmann has more choices than any of his predecessors, and thus the populace and press have plenty to rant about despite a void in coaching speculation. There’s already rampant debate regarding Sacha Kljestan, Alejandro Bedoya, Tim Chandler, Danny Williams, Benny Feilhaber and perhaps a half-dozen candidates. Who gets called into the January camp has whipped up a furor; new faces have virtually no chance to make the World Cup squad but such facts rarely deflect zealotry.
Klinsmann won’t be so hamstrung as wasBob Bradley when his options were narrowed by injuries to Charlie Davies, Stuart Holden and Oguchi Onyewu prior to the 2010 competition, or when Steve Sampson felt compelled to drop captain John Harkes in the run-up to France ’98. He’ll have fewer excuses but with a long-term deal already in place and a deeper player pool he shouldn't really need to use them.
There’s little question the Klinsmann mystique has buffered the program. Players who felt snubbed in the past now believe they have a real chance to show what they can do. Several have played their way into the picture, a few have done the opposite. Aron Johannsson and John Brooks might have chosen other options if not for the chance to play for an outstanding former international who won a World Cup and has already been to another one as a head coach.
“Four more years!” is a chant normally heard at political gatherings. What American soccer fans will be chanting in 2014 and beyond now resonates from one man’s voice, and his vision.