Sunil Gulati has done the difficult thing, fired his buddy Jurgen Klinsmann -- someone he had been relying on to open up a bright new era of winning soccer for the national team.
A relief to be savored. Gulati, a worthy president, should have ditched Klinsmann years ago. His loyalty to the German obviously has its praiseworthy side, but that is almost fantasy soccer. In reality, Klinsmann’s blunderings were endangering Gulati himself.
So we have, from Gulati, the usual regretful praise for the departed, telling us of Klinsmann’s “considerable achievements,” his “historic victories,” and how there will be “benefits from Klinsmann’s work for years to come.”
When the truth of the matter is that Klinsmann has quite simply been downright incompetent. Worse, he has consistently produced a U.S. national team without the remotest sign of any style or elan, he has shown an unpleasant tendency to blame the players for his own deficiencies, plus an equally egregious habit of absurdly inflating the team’s modest successes into heroic triumphs.
He has spread his own incompetence by importing his German friends as his assistants, climaxing in the arrival of Austrian Andi Herzog as the U.S. Olympic coach. A job for which Herzog had not the slightest qualification -- a glaringly obvious “buddy” appointment. Herzog, predictably, made a mess of things and the USA had to sit out the Rio Olympics.
Doing things the German way seems to be Klinsmann’s only modus operandi. We were quickly made aware that American players were not good enough, that MLS was not good enough. His criticisms of MLS, publicly aired, provoked a pugnacious reply from Commissioner Don Garber who accused Klinsmann of damaging the prestige of the league.
Nor did Klinsmann think much of the U.S. youth soccer set-up. American-produced youngsters were not good enough for him, he had to cull the world -- which meant, mostly, Germany -- for foreign-trained players, many with only a slender claim on U.S. citizenship.
He repeatedly proclaimed that, to be more competitive, U.S. players needed two things: they must play in Europe (preferably Germany) and they must learn to be “nastier.” He went so far as to advocate injuring opponents: “Maybe we're still a little bit too naive, maybe we don't want to hurt people, but that's what you've got to do.”
In the midst of this farago of ineptitude and tiresome drivel, the national team blundered on, continually improving (according to Klinsmann) without actually getting any better.
What did Klinsmann accomplish that had not already been done by Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley? Absolutely nothing. Klinsmann liked to crow about how his team had survived the “group of death,” the “worst of the worst” in the 2014 World Cup. Of course, it was Klinsmann himself who had used those labels.
But qualifying for the knockout round of the World Cup was no novelty. Both Arena and Bradley had done it - and better. Arena’s 2002 team reached the quarterfinals, while Bradley’s, in 2010, topped its group. It did so when it beat Algeria on a masterful goal scored by Landon Donovan. A goal scored with the neat immaculate coolness that hallmarked Donovan, who has a strong claim to be considered the finest American-born and trained player ever to play the game.
I mention that because of the appalling insult that Klinsmann landed on Donovan, by leaving him off the roster for the 2014 World Cup. In soccer terms it made no sense at all. It came over as a petty, spiteful jab at America’s most honored player.
There is a convenient yardstick with which to measure the “progress” of Klinsmann’s national team. It is called Costa Rica. Klinsmann, quite deliberately, exaggerated the USA’s task at the 2014 World Cup with his talk of the group of death: Germany, Portugal and Ghana. He might have noticed that in another group Costa Rica’s opponents were England, Uruguay and Italy -- all three former World Cup winners. So what was that then? The Super-Duper-Death Group?
The USA squeaked out of its group in second place on goal difference. Costa Rica, amazingly, finished top of that super-death group. And won it by playing good, stylish soccer -- thereby exposing Klinsmann’s wild claims for what they were -- balderdash.
More recently, Costa Rica cropped up again. That 4-0 defeat. The scoreline was brutal enough, but it contained a message that made a mockery of another of Klinsmann’s claims. In that fatal game Klinsmann’s team contained four of his favored German-Americans, including Jermaine Jones, who was also one of four current MLS players, two of whom -- Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore -- had also spent time playing in Europe, a big plus for Klinsmann. But Costa Rica, with four current MLS players, thoroughly outplayed the USA, leaving another of Klinsmann’s pet theories in question.
I cannot see, in that catalogue of failures and excuses, any sign of those “considerable achievements” that Gulati extols. To win games in Italy and in Germany were achievements, but not “considerable” ones -- given that these were exhibition games, with make-shift team selections and questionable commitment from the opponents.
I have been casting an unfavorable light on the Klinsmann years -- all five of them (and that is an unusually long time for a national team coach to keep his job). During those years I began to detect -- or so it seemed to me -- signs of amateurism in the way that Klinsmann handled things. In particular, his constantly changing team selections suggested ad hoc thinking rather than rather than a carefully thought-out approach.
The worst -- really, really bad -- example of what I perceived as amateurism came in 2012, at a game in Landover, Maryland, in which Brazil mauled the USA 4-1. The game itself was bad enough -- the USA looked inept and, well, amateurish -- but Klinsmann’s post-game press conference was deplorable.
He simply had not done his homework. Looking harassed and flustered, he immediately weighed in with complaints against three referee decisions. All three of his accusations were wrong -- Klinsmann had not bothered to watch the replays. The press, of course, had seen them, and knew that Klinsmann was floundering, looking to blame the referee for his team’s feeble display. For a top national team coach to face the press (something he knew he was going to have to do) and then, without having viewed the replays, indict the referee ... amateurism is probably too charitable a word.
The Klinsmann interlude (Dictionary: “an intervening period of time or activity that contrasts with what goes before or after”) has been a sorry experience for American soccer. I have found much wrong with it in this column -- but so far I haven’t even mentioned what I consider to be the most damaging of Klinsmann’s flaws.
• Next: The Klinsmann Interlude (Part 2): Total Failure to Acknowledge Latino Presence