A History of Sunil Gulati’s Bland Critiques of Jurgen Klinsmann
Klinsmann won't get fired. In fact, has Klinsmann's job ever truly been under threat?
Photo by Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
In the wake of the USMNT's 4-0 demolition in Costa Rica—a performance so dire several pundits suggested Jurgen Klinsmann had lost the locker room—VICE Sports and several other publications called for Klinsmann to be fired. That doesn't mean it will happen, obviously. Which got us thinking: Has Klinsmann's job ever truly been under threat?
Below is a timeline of key events in Klinsmann's USMNT career along with quotes from Klinsmann's boss, USSF President Sunil Gulati. The quotes—an assortment of banalities, basically—relate to Klinsmann's performance as coach. Klinsmann has long talked about the USMNT playing "with urgency" and putting his players in pressure situations. The message is growth through adversity. But the sum of Gulati's quotes, and the way he's handled Klinsmann more broadly, suggest that same urgency doesn't apply to the coach.
July 9, 2011 - Klinsmann becomes USMNT coach.
August 1, 2011 - Gulati is clearly taken with Klinsmann's playing career and previous coaching experience.
- "It's a great thing to have someone who's been on the winners' stand at the World Cup and the European Championship. He's won a bronze medal as a coach at the World Cup. For us, that's a fantastic situation.
- "To have actually tasted the success of winning a World Cup, we think that's a plus, for sure."
April 5, 2012 - Gulati mentions Klinsmann in discussion of youth national teams. Klinsmann's record at this time is 6-5-1 (W-L-D) including January camp friendlies and the team's first ever win over Italy, in Italy.
- "We didn't panic with the senior team when they lost a few games when Jurgen first took over. We don't say, 'Everything is back on track,' after beating Italy in a friendly. Some things we've been doing we'll continue to do. And when there are signals that something isn't working, we'll change it."
August 8, 2012 - Klinsmann's team is preparing to face Mexico in a friendly in Mexico. The team will go on to win 1-0, its first ever victory at Estadio Azteca.
- "The assessment of success ultimately comes from winning, and Jürgen knows that, we've talked about it. With that being said, we don't give midterm grades and right now, we're in the most critical part of the qualifying process. I'm pleased with the way that a number of things have gone, and I know we're anxious to get back into qualifying."
December 12, 2013 - After winning the Gold Cup and qualifying for the World Cup, Klinsmann's contract is extended through the 2018 World Cup. The move is controversial. Not only is Klinsmann's first World Cup as coach is still seven months away, but he's also promoted to technical director, overseeing the USSF's developmental structure and youth programs. In short, he's become his own boss.
December 13, 2013 - Gulati comments on the contract.
- "After the World Cup, lots of things can happen. Jurgen may have other interest. We may have other interest. This is a way, frankly, of making a long-term commitment to each other, one that we're pleased with. Traditionally we've waited until after the World Cup. We've decided not to do that here. Jurgen is a unique coach with unique opportunities."
- "All of this doesn't come down to one game, one missed shot or one save. Clearly the World Cup is extraordinarily important, and it's a measure of where we are. But it's not the only thing and the only way we measure ourselves."
June 25, 2014 - The World Cup is underway. Klinsmann's team just beat Ghana and tied Portugal. Tomorrow is its final group match, against Germany. Gulati is asked whether the team needs "to advance to justify Jurgen Klinsmann's long-term contract."
- If we needed that, we would have made the contract conditional. That's the reality of it. Clearly there's a difference between going 0-3 and getting hammered in three games than going out in what most people recognize as one of the toughest groups and getting four points.
July 1, 2014 - The US loses 2-1 to Belgium in the first knockout round. The team making it this far is viewed by many as a success, and Julian Green's goal quieted the anger over Klinsmann's decision to bring Green instead of Landon Donovan.
July 26, 2015 - The US finishes fourth (!) in the Gold Cup. After one World Cup and failing to win the following Gold Cup, Klinsmann's predecessor Bob Bradley was fired.
- "Progress is not linear for anyone. There are bumps along the way. This is totally a bump. The team was certainly on a high in the spring. And today's a low. But those are the norms for everyone."
November 14, 2015 - Klinsmann recently lost the Concacaf Cup to Mexico, 3-2, a result that flattered the US team. The Mexico loss was bookended by two friendly defeats, to Costa Rica and Brazil. The team then beat Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and tied Trinidad and Tobago in its opening round of World Cup qualifying.
- "I don't know if we have ever given any coach of our teams a specific metric and specific result and said, 'If this happens, everything's good. If this happens, it's not.' We have certain targets and goals that are different for each of our teams, but I am not sure it would be appropriate to have a specific metric for a game or two games. But it's pretty well understood qualifying for the World Cup is the specific target and many of our agreements with coaches, not just in the senior team, there are clauses in terms of continued employment if X, Y or Z doesn't happen, in terms of our desire to make a change."
June 7, 2016 - The US has just lost 2-0 to Colombia in the opening round of the Copa America. Gulati expresses his first real sense of disappointment.
- "The results over the last 18 months, overall, have not been what we would've hoped for — especially in the official competitions."
- "It's the official competitions that matter the most, and we haven't been up to where we'd like to be. We'll look at everything at the end of this competition. I don't get too high or too low based on one game, especially when it's a game against a very good team."
- "So, we'll wait and see how the next two games go and hopefully some additional games after that before we assess where things are."
- "There are things, overall, in his role as technical director, we think we've made good advances on. But we need to win games, and we need to win games in competitive play."
June 22, 2016 - Credit to Klinsmann's team, they made it to the semifinals of the Copa America, where they were blown out by Argentina, 1-4.
- "Today is a good day to judge where we are in the program overall as a team. We're obviously a long way off. We knew that going in, but we knew we were a long way off when we beat Spain back in 2009 or Germany or Holland last year."
June 26, 2016 - Following the Argentina match, the team was defeated again by Colombia, this time losing 1-0 in the 3rd place match.
- "We got to the semifinals which is good. A game that was pretty rough [Argentina], and today was a game that could have gone either way. A lot of emotion. But do you take a step back? It's a tough tournament. We didn't lose to anybody in the tournament that's ranked outside the top five in the world. But we need to win some of those games, obviously."
November 12, 2016 - The US team loses to Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, for the first time.
- "Every coach at some level is on the hot seat in every game. We have not had a coach in 27 years that has started World Cup qualifying and not finished World Cup qualifying. The last time was in 1988-89.
- "We've never changed coaches in the Hex. And I expect that to be the case here."
November 15, 2016 - The US is dismantled in Costa Rica.
- "We don't make any decisions right after games. We'll think about what happened today and talk with Jurgen and look at the situation."
There's a pattern here: Gulati consistently mentions winning but never specifically criticizes Klinsmann. When he does hint at disappointment, he qualifies that with talk of progress elsewhere, deflects by saying progress is not linear, or falls back on historical precedent suggesting Klinsmann's job is safe.
This is true even as Klinsmann failed to win competitive games, on multiple occasions, against the world's best teams. (Bob Bradley, on the other hand, beat Spain in the Confederations Cup.) It's true even after Klinsmann's team was embarrassed in the Gold Cup in a fashion far worse than Bob Bradley's last Gold Cup, where the team lost 4-2 to Mexico in the final. (Bradley, remember, paid for that loss with his job.)
The problem for Gulati, as ESPN's Jeff Carlisle pointed out, is that his legacy is married to Klinsmann's. If Klinsmann fails, so does Gulati. The irony here is that as Klinsmann has lost and struggled, Gulati keeps giving him more opportunity to fail. He's become a poker player clinging to a bad hand.
It's now up to Gulati to prove us wrong. Klinsmann claims to hold his players to a high standard. It's time for Gulati to show that he holds his staff to that same high standard.
The evidence, however, suggest he won't do anything of the sort.