When former international Landon Donovan raised the issue of accountability, the segment of U.S. fans whose limits of patience and sympathy were exhausted by his benign displays and long sabbatical cited disgruntlement about being chopped off the 2014 World Cup team as motivation for remarks that a loss to Mexico should trigger his dismissal. Donovan is just one of many former U.S. internationals to express their opinions about Klinsmann’s methods and track record, yet he’s on solid ground to say that in many other countries, similar results would prompt termination.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has gone on record to say a loss to Mexico won’t prompt the firing of Klinsmann. Many members of the soccer press corps have surmised that Gulati will stick to his guns, unless the U.S loses badly. Should one game, no matter how monumental, be the determinant of whether a new leader is chosen and a new course laid out?
In this case, “unless” is B.S. Regardless of what transpires on Saturday, either the U.S. is in on the right path under Klinsmann or it’s not. He won the 2013 Gold Cup and lost in the 2015 semifinals to Jamaica, which subsequently lost in the final to Mexico and thus set up this unprecedented match between the bitterest of rivals.
If Klinsmann’s work at the 2014 World Cup is confirmation, he’s earned the job long-term and what transpires in the Rose Bowl shouldn’t be sufficient cause to re-evaluate his tenure. An overhyped showdown against Mexico doesn’t change the fact that Klinsmann hasn’t lost to El Tri in six meetings, and is the only coach in U.S. history to win a game – a friendly, it must be said – and garner a tie at the Azteca in qualifying play.
So all the experts and pundits declaring that Gulati won’t fire Klinsmann unless maybe, possibly the U.S. falters badly at the Rose Bowl are heaping an importance on this one game that Gulati does not recognize. However, nowhere have I seen a fan or ex-player or pundit offer up the scenario of Klinsmann resigning in the aftermath of an embarrassing defeat.
Again, this is not a function of just one game but rather the big picture, which Klinsmann has vast authority to control because he is technical director as well as head coach of the national team. He picked Andi Herzog to coach the U-23/Olympic team, which goes for its own vital objective a few hours before the senior team tangles with Mexico. What if the U-23s sweep to their fourth straight victory and qualify for the 2016 Olympic soccer tournament and Mexico prevails in the Rose Bowl? Does Klinsmann’s eye for talent, which has drawn Jordan Morris and Julian Green and Aron Johannsson and other young players in the fold supersede a few bad results?Donovan is only partly right in claiming that similar circumstances in other countries would prompt a firing. It’s not unheard of head coaches under extreme pressure to resign. In the case of Klinsmann, he could back out and relieve Gulati of the difficult task of firing him, and stay on his technical director so his value as a spotter of talent and globally known figurehead could be utilized by U.S. Soccer.
Such a move -- assuming Klinsmann would agree to it, which is by no means assured -- would require U.S. Soccer to find a national team head coach compatible with the methods and philosophies of Klinsmann and also well-versed in the business of winning games. So this solution may not be feasible given the unique conditions under which Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer are operating. Klinsmann won't want to step down even if a case can be made that his greatest value is overseeing player evaluation and development and not managing the team.
Before Klinsmann was hired in the summer of 2011, media exposure and coverage of the national team and U.S. Soccer’s programs had already started a dramatic upswing. That process has accelerated during his tenure, and thus, his quirky methods and the team’s streaky performances have been examined and scrutinized at unprecedented levels. Overtraining and tactical naivety are among the criticisms leveled at his work.
Yet whether or not outsiders understand the processes by which Klinsmann operates is largely irrelevant. All that matters is how the team plays and the results it accrues, and like so many aspects of the Klinsmann era, those stats are rooted in ambiguity and contradiction. The same team that beat the Netherlands and Germany in Europe can’t beat Jamaica at home in the Gold Cup? Unprecedented friendly victories in Italy and Mexico don’t mean anything in competitive tournaments? Players who performed well in the 2013 Hexagonal and 2014 World Cup are dropped in their prime? Are players who come back from Europe regressing in MLS and if so what can be done about it?
Saturday is probably the biggest day in the history of U.S. Soccer, yet the same issues will still be on the horizon when the sun peaks over it Sunday morning.