Be Here Now

Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to overhaul the U.S. Men's National Team, and lay the foundation for the future of American soccer. First, though, he'll have to survive the present.
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The unhappy guys are not from Honduras.

For years before Jurgen Klinsmann took the job in 2011, U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati wanted to make Klinsmann the coach of the U.S. Men's National Team. There were—and still are, even after the USMNT dropped its opening game of the final stages of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the "Hex", 2-1, in Honduras last week—some good reasons for this.  Gulati wanted a coach who could take the USMNT from its present reality—a solid collection of mildly talented but extremely ambitious and hard-working players—to a more-inspiring future, and Klinsmann had already shown the ability to do that by overhauling the German National Team. Gulati wanted a coach with international renown, Klinsmann has that, too.

What could and maybe should have been easy—the hiring, not the overhauling/revitalizing—wasn't, mostly because Gulati didn't want to yield any of his own power, and because Klinsmann demanded some for himself. Klinsmann wanted not only to coach the USMNT, but to do the same system-wide rejiggering that he did with Germany's National Team and youth team systems during his run as the coach of the German National team from 2004-06. Gulati still wanted to run USSF and control the trajectory of the team and the country’s soccer identity as a whole; he was hiring Klinsmann as a coach, not a chief executive.

And so there was a stalemate: Klinsmann was happy living in Southern California with his wife doing yoga and flying helicopters, and was happy to wait for the right offer. When it came, he accepted. If Klinsmann was in no rush, Gulati—then fresh off the USMNT embarrassment in the 2011 Gold Cup Final against an inexperienced Mexico team—was in a rush. Gulati was ready to cede what needed ceding to bring in a coach who could win and who had a vision for the future. The question, then and perhaps more acutely now, is how quickly Gulati—and U.S. soccer fans—expect that future to arrive, and how long those wins can wait.

***

The German National Team was revitalized under Klinsmann's leadership, but he wasn't to enjoy the rewards of his work. The team made an unexpected run in the 2006 World Cup, but Klinsmann's predecessor Joachim Löw is reaping the present-day benefits of Klinsmann's savvy long-range planning. Under Löw, Die Mannschaft is dynamic and shockingly fun. Its attack-first brand of soccer that bloomed in the 2010 World Cup was not just a departure from the team's previous style, but something that would have been impossible without Klinsmann's developmental work. If the system is Löw's, the players who make it work are the product of the youth program Klinsmann created. The young players coming through it are some of the best in the world, and would fight for a spot on just about every team in the world besides Spain. These are Klinsmann's kids.

The challenge in the U.S. is bigger, of course—Germany's youth systems were well established, clubs had solid-footing and soccer is and was the country's prime time sport, Germany has World Cups and European Championships to its credit. The United States, on the other hand, doesn't have any of those things, with the exception of the 19-year-old Major League Soccer and its newly established youth academies. The sport's profile is growing, though—the days of orange slices at halftime have given way to prime-time spots on ESPN, Fox and NBC Sports—but Klinsmann surely knew the scale of the work ahead of him in taking the job. He couldn't have known how long it would take to do that work, although his experience in Germany might have given him an idea.

***

It is, of course, a good thing for both the sport of soccer in the U.S. and the USMNT that more Americans are watching, caring, learning about and playing soccer. But all this passion has, maybe not surprisingly, created an increasingly palpable sense of impatience—not with Klinsmann's broader project, but with the results that it is providing right now. Fans want to win, and Klinsmann's USMNT isn't winning.

Is this contradictory? Sure, although sports fans are not noted for their patience with things like this. Fans understand there is an international pecking order, but they also want to make noise at World Cups. They want to compete with every team in the world, in World Cups to come, but also to compete now. And that's a problem for Klinsmann right now, because his visions of a bigger, better and more sustainably successful American team will take years to come to fruition. If fans are willing to wait for that bright future—especially if it delivers a team like the ones Klinsmann helped create in Germany—there is also the question of right now, and the increasingly disconcerting answers that the USMNT has offered during Klinsmann's years at the helm. There is, most recently, The Hex.

The game was rough and hot in Honduras. The USMNT was slow and looked burnt out; Honduras was ambitious and poised, and looked like a team primed to climb the CONCACAF ladder. If Klinsmann's plans work out, future USMNTs should be able to beat teams like this; the one that Klinsmann had at his disposal last week, though, needed some tweaking.

And so USMNT Captain Carlos Bocanegra didn’t take his usual spot in the center or the left side of defense. Klinsmann knows it's time for the next generation to take hold, which meant playing Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez in the center of the defense and Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler on the outside. It meant that the USMNT defense carried a total of 23 caps into the hostile Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano; Bocanegra has 110 caps on his own. It also meant defensive mistakes, two goals, and a loss.

But it also meant that Klinsmann's defense of the future was put to the test and did relatively well. Building a trusted, tested defense bodes well for the future, and the future is Klinsmann’s focus. But he will have to tinker effectively enough on the fly for the present—winning games like this one—not to be his undoing. And in this case, Klinsmann just didn’t get it all right. He miscalculated Honduras’ ability to push on the wings and keep Johnson and Chandler at bay. He miscalculated when he thought his midfield would supply a strong shield for his inexperienced defense.

And there remains the question of Landon Donovan, the USMNT's all-time leading goal-scorer, who has been in hiding since Klinsmann took over. In some ways, Donovan's absence could be a blessing in the long run—Donovan is fading, and his replacements will benefit from learning on the job as surely as the new defense will.

There are only so many more of these miscalculations left to make before they start eroding both Klinsmann's future and that of his team. More miscues will guarantee a long battle even to make it to the next World Cup in Brazil. The long term project may well be doing fine, but a failure to qualify for the World Cup might well insure that Klinsmann will, again, not be around to see the future he made.

***

Klinsmann envisions a USMNT talent pool with more than one Landon Donovan. He wants to build a system that produces technically sound players. He wants US Soccer to be a well-engineered system, one that makes USMNT the most dominant team in CONCACAF and ensures that it will be a team that fights for trophies in every competition. Fans want this, too. But for every bit of progress, there is a result that seems to undermine it—a recent underwhelming 0-0 draw with a feeble Canada side, or that loss in the heat and long grass of Honduras.

Klinsmann keeps saying he wants to do more than win games, and fans can get behind that. But he'll need to recoup, rebuild and win—against Costa Rica, in Colorado, in March, and then again after that—if he's to be able to finish painting that big picture that Gulati finally brought him in to create.


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