Graham Ruthven on the head coach of US soccer after an awful start to World Cup qualifying campaign
Columbus, Ohio was more than just an occasional host city for the US national team.
In a somewhat inexplicable manner the biggest small town in America had become a footballing cradle. In 11 visits there the USA had never lost so when Mexico inflicted a 2-1 defeat on them at Mapfre Stadium last Friday something in the spirit of the American game snapped.
With Rafa Marquez’s 89th minute winner the legend of Dos a Cero - a run which saw the US beat Mexico 2-0 four consecutive times in Columbus - was broken. And yet there was still worse to come. The 4-0 humbling at the hands of Costa Rica just days later left the Americans slumped at the foot of CONCACF’s Hexagonal qualifying stage and sparked an nationwide inquest.
Jurgen Klinsmann, not for the first time, bore the brunt of criticism. The German has faced questions over his position and future as US national team boss since the World Cup two years ago, with qualification performances and their display at last year’s Gold Cup disappointing. But something felt different about the slating Klinsmann received after the defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica.
There is no longer any debate over whether Klinsmann should stay as national team manager, instead there is unanimous consensus that his tenure has run its course with the only discussion considering when he will leave. US Soccer president Sunil Gulati would appear to be his only backer, with even the players themselves facing questioning over their commitment to the boss.
United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann watches the game on the sideline during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Costa Rica, in San Jose, Costa Rica, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. United States lost 4-0 to Costa Rica. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)
That backing from Gulati means Klinsmann is unlikely to be sacked before the 2018 World Cup, barring a truly catastrophic sequence of results. The US Soccer president’s own fate is intertwined with Klinsmann’s. Having placed so much faith in the German his own position would come under scrutiny should he abandon his flagship project.
On balance, the USA will still make it to Russia, even after losing their opening two Hex fixtures. That is the margin for error CONCACAF’s qualification format leaves. They can still count on their place at the 2018 World Cup, but there are existential issues for the American game as a whole, not just the national team, to address.
Back-to-back defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica might have been the starkest manifestation of those issues yet, with US football’s recent struggles entrenched in much more than anything plotted on a tactics board or reflected in a scoreline, but Klinsmann has become an easy target for those intent on venting their frustrations over the sport's Stateside stagnation.
Not everything that has seen the American game thump its head against the glass ceiling time and time again can be blamed on the German. The finger cannot be pointed at Klinsmann for John Brooks’ slack marking for Mexico’s late winner or the spineless nature of his side’s collapse in Costa Rica. He is, however, falling foul of his own promise.
Seeking to do with the US national team as he did with the German national team, Klinsmann was hired on the vow that he would lead technical progression of the sport Stateside, with US Soccer officially appointing him Technical Director on top of his job as head coach three years ago. He is more than a manager.
It’s for this reason Klinsmann has to answer for so much. Most national team managers can pass fundamental matters of player development on to someone else, on to another department down the corridor. Klinsmann’s combined role, however, means he cannot pass the buck. He takes it all.
Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, appears during a press conference in Bristol, Conn., Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
This perhaps underlines the folly of such positions in international football. Technical development at national team level is almost impossible due to the lack of time spent with the players. With just a handful of training sessions every few months Klinsmann was never likely to follow through on his grand plans. It is therefore almost always the responsibility of the clubs rather than the associations to ensure progress.
Klinsmann’s advocates (whose numbers are diminishing) might point out that for all the criticism he has faced he still led the USA to the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, finding a way out of the fabled Group of Death. But there were gripes to be had over how the US made it that far, though.
Klinsmann’s appointment was supposed to signal a shift in the identity of American football. He was meant to bring the USA up to the level of the international elite, both in a technical and tactical sense, and yet in all four games they played in Brazil, Klinsmann’s strategy consisted of sitting deep, plugging the gaps and hitting out on the counter. It might have worked, but is this really the future US Soccer envisaged for itself?
It is undoubtedly an indictment of Klinsmann that in the five years he has taken the US national team for no real progress is evident. As a coach he is an infuriating figure. He makes the same mistakes without learning, his team selections follow little in the way of a coherent thread and his man-management style has earned him just as many enemies as friends (possibly more).
And yet Klinsmann is continually linked with essentially every Premier League job posted as a vacancy. He was even rumoured to be the next England manager-elect before Sam Allardyce was ultimately handed the post, and again after Allardyce resigned just a few weeks later. Outside the American game nothing seems to stick. With US football, however, it’s a question of how much more he can take.