It took three negotiating sessions over five years, but the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) finally has its man. Introduced last week, the German playing and coaching legend Jurgen Klinsmann will head the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) as it attempts to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Klinsmann will replace the outgoing Bob Bradley who was fired after what was, statistically, the most successful era of men's soccer in this country. The feeling around the fan base and the hierarchy itself was that Bradley and the program had grown stale.
Following what would be described as a successful run through the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in which the U.S. won its group for the first time, Bradley was re-signed for another four-year cycle. The team proceeded to struggle badly in a variety of high level friendlies against the likes of Brazil, Spain, Paraguay and Argentina, with a draw against Lionel Messi’s Argentine squad the only result.
Bradley’s fatal blow though came in this summer’s Gold Cup tournament. The team lost a group stage match for the first time in the tournaments history (an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Panama) and struggled to put away weaker opponents throughout.
Yet all of those transgressions would have been forgiven had the U.S. been able to beat archrival Mexico in the championship match. After stunning the Mexican side early in the match by attacking with unheard of ferocity, the U.S. held a 2-0 lead just 20 minutes into the match and the crowd of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in California was in stunned silence.
Over the final 70 minutes, led by Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovanni Dos Santos, Mexico demonstrated who the better side truly was as they leveled the score by half time and then dismantled their American counterparts in the second half en route to a 4-2 win and their second consecutive Gold Cup championship.
In the past decade, the United States had quietly become the superior program to its neighbors, but the Gold Cup Final had demonstrated that no longer were they the dominant force in the CONCACAF region. This, more than anything is what led to Bradley’s termination.
I believe to this day that if Mexico hadn’t surpassed the U.S. as the premier side, the USSF would have been content to let Bob Bradley play out the string all the way through the 2014 World Cup.
The trouble is, this was not going to be an isolated incident. In addition to young stars like Hernandez and Dos Santos, Mexico has an exceptionally bright future after winning the U-17 World Cup and advancing to the knockout stages of the U-20 World Cup (still ongoing). The U.S., meanwhile, was eliminated early in the quarterfinals of the U-17 tournament and didn’t even qualify for the U-20 event. Without a radical change in leadership, the U.S. was in serious danger of falling hopelessly behind the Mexicans in the world’s game.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann.
The reason that Klinsmann turned down the USSF twice when offered the job as the head of U.S. Soccer was control. Klinsmann wanted the ability to totally revamp the youth system in this country from the way players are selected to the way they are taught the game. Chairman Sunil Gulati wasn’t comfortable ceding that much power and the sides were never able to come to terms.
Recent events obviously have dictated that radical change is needed for the U.S. to keep pace and finally a deal was struck. It was the right move for the oft-criticized Gulati, even if it came late.
Klinsmann will never be confused with the likes of Manchester United’s longtime manager Sir Alex Ferguson when it comes to tactical ability (his assistants will handle most of those duties), but what he brings to the table is a keen eye for talent and an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm, charisma and confidence that will filter down to his players. In that respect, he’s the polar opposite of his predecessor and should be able to help keep home grown talent from using FIFA's dual citizenship rules and plying their trades with other national teams.
In addition, Klinsmann is well known for favoring an attacking style of play rather than the defensive counter attacking brand of soccer Bradley was so fond of.
Assuming that he is able to find the players to implement it, the team should be much more exciting to watch while they transition away from some of their more seasoned veterans. Exciting and creative players like Freddy Adu and Justin Braun should benefit greatly from the more open style that Klinsmann favors.
However, with transition must come patience. Klinsmann will be under a great deal of pressure to produce immediate results beginning with Wednesday night's friendly against Mexico in Philadelphia. But it’s simply unrealistic to expect the program to take an immediate step forward while at the same time re-evaluating the talent pool and radically reshaping the youth program.
If the announced roster for the Mexico friendly is any indication, over the next year we’ll likely see a great turnover in the roster and a number of players getting their first looks with the USMNT. This might lead to some initial struggles on the pitch, but U.S. fans shouldn’t fret.
Once Klinsmann gets comfortable in the position and has the right people in place around him, the USMNT will likely be strengthened for the long term and will remain a force in the region and potentially the world.
What does that mean for World Cup qualification, which begins this time next year? When qualifying groups were announced this past week, the U.S. brass breathed a sigh of relief as it was given perhaps the easiest possible road, avoiding the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras until the late stages.That should allow Klinsmann to continue to tinker with the roster and coaching staff while easily steering the team into one of the three available CONCACAF slots in Brazil.
As for Klinsmann's ability to assimilate himself into the U.S. culture and forge an identity, he's already a California resident who has kept a watchful eye on the MLS and the national team over the past few years while patiently waiting for his opportunity, so the learning curve shouldn't be too steep.
Essentially, Klinsmann is already very clued in to the bizarre structure of U.S. soccer and should be able to provide the reform and innovation that is needed to push the program into the 21st century and get it back on track toward being the premier program in the region.
Klinsmann’s last coaching stop at Bayern-Munich was a disaster, so there is of course the potential for this experiment to fail. But the reverberations of the work he did with a German national team program that was in similar need of a makeover are still being felt to this day.
Based on that, fans are right to be excited and dare to dream of what could be.