When Jurgen Klinsmann took over for the U.S. Men's National Team in the summer of 2011, he declared the U.S. would play a "proactive" style with heavy Latin influence to "move the program forward." America got the exact opposite. In the years since, he has scolded his team for playing too tentatively against world powers while resorting to pragmatic, defend-and-counter approaches against equal competition, an approach nearly indistinguishable from his predecessors.
Klinsmann was fired on Monday. Only he, his staff, and the players know the full extent of what went wrong. A major part, for sure, was Klinsmann's lack of tactical acumen and seeming inability to get the most from his players, who routinely performed better for club than country. Why? How? Someday, perhaps, we'll get a full accounting. Regardless, it feels as if the U.S. is now right back where it started.
However, laying the national team's stagnation solely at Klinsmann's feet is a cop out. Klinsmann got the job and provoked so much enthusiasm among American soccer fans early on precisely because of his promises to take the game to opponents, to compete with the best. Klinsmann got a lot about U.S. soccer wrong, but his read on our culture, in this respect, was spot on:
"Studying your culture and having an American wife and American kids, mainly right now my understanding is that you don't like to react to what other people do. I think this is maybe a starting point. I think America never really waits and sees and leaves it up to other people to decide what is next. I think America always likes to decide on its own what is next."
Klinsmann was a problem, but not the problem. In bringing him on, the American soccer establishment allowed naked ambition to blind it to practical reality, like a retired couple on a fixed income buying penny stocks from a telemarketer. The U.S. got suckered by a big ideas guy who played to our collective athletic vanity and desire to compete with the best, despite all available evidence that we are nowhere close.
From the beginning, Klinsmann keyed on American ambition: America will play like a top country, against top countries, and aggressively compete with them. He understood our culture well enough to know this promise would get a lot of people on his side, including USSF executives and board members. Many fans, of course, also loved the idea.
The problem, which Klinsmann did in fact briefly allude to in his introductory press conference, is that American soccer doesn't generate the talent necessary to play such a style. This is obvious—so obvious he said it out loud when he took over the team and no one blinked—and yet everyone largely ignored it in pursuit of an unattainable goal. Right now, the national team roster is arguably the best collection of talent we've ever had, and it's still miles short of the top 10 teams in the world, even on its best day. The idea that America could, within a single coach's tenure, go from Mike Fratello's Cleveland Cavaliers to today's Golden State Warriors was always snake oil salesman stuff.
Luckily for Klinsmann, Americans were sick of hearing about our talent shortfall, and were thus ready to accept a manager not just telling us otherwise, but promising to play like it, too. Klinsmann, in his dual role as technical director and head coach, claimed he would find and develop the talent to play proactively and then integrate it into the national team. He promised to overhaul the American youth system, no matter how impractical that was, a necessary step toward playing the way he said Americans crave.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Not only has the USMNT struggled, but the youth team has arguably taken a giant step back. They didn't even qualify for the Olympics. Five years in, Klinsmann's plan hasn't worked on any level. His continued pleas for patience until his final days in charge rang hollow. How long did he need? According to his introductory press conference, in which he alluded to the development of Barcelona's post-Cruyff, he would need 20 years. But, assuming he made it to that point, Klinsmann wouldn't have been an agent of change. He would have been a passive observer, riding a wave of shifting American demographics. A lot changes in 20 years, and it rarely has much to do with one man.
Klinsmann got the ambition part of American culture right, but he missed a key element. You have to deliver on something, anything, in order to buy the necessary time for a vision to play out. Klinsmann could never make good on his promises, which eventually caught up with him. Maybe he bought himself a little more time because he was playing out a long-term plan rather than trying to deliver game-to-game results, but in the end, that wasn't enough.
Hindsight is always perfect, but it's hard not to look back on Klinsmann's early remarks and wonder why anyone believed him in the first place, or why we even wanted to. Playing "proactive" is all well and good, but so is winning. There's nothing wrong with defending and counterattacking, especially when you have big, athletic center backs, speedy wingers, and a young, quick forward. Maybe the thing Klinsmann understood best about American culture is that we are always pretending to be something we're not.
In the end, Klinsmann was exactly who we thought he was, both for good and bad. The problem for American soccer going forward is: so are we.
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