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unmet expectations

How Do We Judge Jurgen Klinsmann's Tenure?

Four years into his stint as U.S. national manager, Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to distinguish himself from his predecessors.

by Leander Schaerlaeckens
14 July 2015, 2:40pm

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

On July 29, it will have been four years since Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed head coach of the U.S. men's national team. At a press conference in New York City three days after his hiring, Klinsmann promised to "move the program forward" and to play "proactive" soccer with a team having the "influence coming from the Latin environment."

Klinsmann has delivered on almost none of his vows: the program is more or less where it was previously; the football remains stodgy and reactive; there were just four players with any kind of Latin heritage, however faint, on the 2014 World Cup roster. And while we've seen little progress on really any front, it's hard to call his tenure a failure, exactly. Or an outright success. Frankly, we don't know what to call it.

Read More: Why 'the MLS' Hates Jurgen Klinsmann

The revolution that Klinsmann promised has not come. If the ongoing Gold Cup campaign has shown us anything — with the Americans often outmatched in flattered and narrow wins over Honduras and Haiti — it's that the U.S. looks more or less the same as it ever has.

But then it's still relatively early. We're in year four of what will probably be a seven-year tenure, if it doesn't last longer. The picture is still too murky, too clouded by circumstance, qualifiers and false equivalencies, to lay the blame for the status quo squarely at Klinsmann's feet. He inherited an aging team. The talent coming through mostly failed to stick over in Europe. His program of reforms was always going to need time to take root. And given the carte blanche he was essentially handed at his hiring, we can't fully judge his body of work until it's complete.

In the interim, most fans, and almost all regular national team reporters, still aren't sure what to make of him. Klinsmann's has had the most confounding tenure of any coach in the short while since America got serious about its national teams. And so the jury still very much remains out on him, hopelessly divided on the charges, with several mistrials already on the books.

Because for four years now, the question we've grappled with has been the same: how do we judge Jurgen?

Klinsmann smiles a lot, but doesn't always say a meaningful thing. Photo by Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

And here's the trouble with assessing him: absent a fair verdict on Klinsmann's performance on his campaign platform, all we can do is grade him against his predecessors.

But that doesn't quite work either. Because of sample sizes and other scientific-sounding reasons, it's hard to draw parallels and prove discrepancies in how they've done. Like Bruce Arena, and like Bob Bradley — Klinsmann's most immediate predecessors — he had a good first World Cup. Surviving the group of death was no small task. But the German hasn't yet completed a full A-team Gold Cup, the second-biggest test of a U.S. manager's mettle.

Yes, Klinsmann won the 2013 Gold Cup, but that was essentially a B-team event because it conflicted with World Cup qualifying and the Confederations Cup. And sure, the Americans placed first in the final round of the CONCACAF region in those qualifiers, but so did Bradley's team in 2010, and Arena's team in 2006.

Klinsmann's World Cup performance in 2014 — eliminated in extra time of the round of 16 — exactly matched Bradley's in 2010. It fell a round short of Arena's quarterfinal in 2002. But then Arena crashed out of the group stage in 2006, diluting his record. Bradley placed second at the 2009 Confederations Cup while Arena went out in the group stage in 2003. Klinsmann hasn't had the chance to compete in one.

The only thing setting Klinsmann apart thus far are historic friendly wins in Mexico, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany, the latter two of which came just last month. But even considering those feats, which somehow, and perhaps tellingly, feel both minor and significant, there's little basis for comparison.

Before Klinsmann, the U.S. had never had a coach who was a titan of the industry — albeit much more so as a player than a coach. The best-known manager it had previously hired was an eccentric, job-hopping Yugoslavian named Bora Milutinovic.

Klinsmann and his coaching staff. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As such, comparing to Klinsmann to either Arena or Bradley isn't so much to compare apples to oranges, as it is chicken nuggets to beluga caviar. That isn't to say that one was inherently better than the other, but just that the former came into the job with a pedigree the other two could never hope to match. This was underscored by the difference in their salaries. In his final full year in charge, Bradley made some $818,000, according to tax records. In his first year, Klinsmann was paid $2.5 million. It's fair to assume he got a raise when he extended his contract through the 2018 World Cup in Dec. 2013.

It was no big secret that U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati coveted Klinsmann as his coach when he came to power in 2006, espousing the belief that the German would push the program ever upwards. After unceremoniously firing Arena after the '06 World Cup, he was allegedly rebuffed by Klinsmann though, and the job fell to Bob Bradley, Arena's protégé. After the successful 2010 World Cup, when Bradley's contract was up, Klinsmann apparently demurred again and the former was re-signed. Then, when Bradley's team stumbled to Mexico 4-2 in the final of the 2011 Gold Cup, he was fired and Klinsmann finally installed.

Whether it was Klinsmann's availability and newfound willingness that caused Bradley's firing, or the other way around is a chicken-and-the-egg sort of thing. But the suspicious fact is that Klinsmann signed the very day after Bradley was dismissed.

If you ignore the total failure of his brief tenure as Bayern Munich manager, Klinsmann's track record in Germany is practically spotless: he won a World Cup as a player and laid the foundation for another such triumph as a manager. In a two-year stint in charge of his native Germany from 2004 to 2006, he profoundly altered the program's DNA and culture. If his assistant Jogi Loew took care of such pesky details as tactics, Klinsmann nevertheless deserves credit for insisting on the necessary innovation that laid the foundation for victory at the 2014 World Cup — credit that Loew himself has readily given him. Klinsmann took on the incredulous press and survived its sustained campaign of character assassination and even forged ahead when the German parliament threatened to call him in to answer for meek results during the transition.

Will Klinsmann ever deliver what he promised? Photo by Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

In Klinsmann, Gulati and U.S. Soccer finally had gotten their man. But four years into this experiment, we still haven't seen much to justify all of that anticipation — or the $10 million or so paid out to Klinsmann. Not in meaningful competition anyway. All we really have to suggest that we're bridging the gaping chasm with the world's elite is those friendly wins. But friendlies are not real. While actual games happened, they are coated in caveats. There's a reason they don't count. Does that mean the only tangible thing Klinsmann has achieved doesn't matter either?

Probably not. Some talent is finally coming through. But Klinsmann gets more credit for his recruiting charms in swaying dual-nationals rather than having instigated some systemic development upgrade that's beginning to bear fruit.

Yet with hindsight, you could argue that Arena introduced and enabled the rise of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley, Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, who would all go on to have glittering national team careers. Bradley brought in his son, Michael — although Arena handed him his debut — and then Jozy Altidore, while making Tim Howard his starting goalkeeper. On this score, Klinsmann's record is rather mixed. He has yet to insert a cornerstone into the national team foundation. While he has uncovered useful players, none have really cemented long-term starting jobs or suggested they'll enter the pantheon of U.S. greats.

The trouble with that line of reasoning, of course, is that you can't usually tell what kind of legacy a player will leave until well into the next manager's tenure. But it underscores a swelling complaint of the U.S., anno Klinsmann: that it lacks identity. For all of the complaints about Arena's attack-happy sides and Bradley's pragmatic soundness, we still don't know what to expect of Klinsmann's team. It differs from game to game.

He has said plenty about what he expects of his players, but it almost never corresponds with what we see. Klinsmann is a talker. But the football never looks as pretty as his words. So much of what he says is void. Even more of it contradicts itself. This doesn't much help us in our quandary. Whereas Bradley was famously taciturn with the media — making no secret of his dislike for that aspect of his job, no matter how friendly and approachable he was away from the microphones — Klinsmann really gives you just as little. Except he delivers his non-sequiturs with a ready smile, a disarming giggle and a European accent.

But here, as in all other areas, Klinsmann gets many benefits of many doubts, courtesy of all the hope invested in his appointment. Because when it comes to Klinsmann, we have yet to define what a good job performance looks like. How good is good enough?

Is it what we're getting? Or what we hoped to get?

Even in the vastness of the gray area in between those two, there is much distance separating what we're seeing and what we were promised. If the direction Klinsmann has taken the national team in is supposed to lead it to some better place, we're a long way from it yet.