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Jurgen Klinsmann, a lone revolutionary in conservative U.S. soccer culture

Klinsmann was a foreigner in an American soccer culture which has very thin skin when it comes to critical outsiders. He upset the league and those who had worked to build it from its shaky foundations to where it is now.
British-born, Miami-based Simon Evans has covered every World Cup since 1998 and has worked across Europe and North America covering football for a number of international media outlets. He was the co-author of the ‘Rough Guide to European Football’ and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Reuters.
Jurgen Klinsmann fired as U.S. soccer coach Crédito: Getty Images

As the United States national team trudged off the field in San Jose, Costa Rica last Tuesday, after a 4-0 drubbing from their hosts, their seemed little doubt that their coach Jurgen Klinsmann would be heading out of the door.

It was the kind of demoralizing performance, lacking fight, energy and ideas, that ends coach’s tenures across the world. On Monday, confirmation came when Klinsmann was fired as head coach of the national team and technical director of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Of course not every 4-0 defeat or miserable display ends with the coach being fired. Sometimes they are given notice that they have to turn things around quickly and handed one more chance. Sometimes a coach can shrug off the loss and put it down to being a ‘bad day at the office’ and get away with it.

But in order to survive a bad run of form and results, a coach needs a support network willing to back him - that is something German-born Klinsmann clearly didn’t have and, it has often appeared, almost never had during his five years in charge of the national team.

To get through a slump, a coach needs a boss who is on his side and backs his judgement and capacity to provide the long-term solutions. We know Klinsmann didn’t have that relationship lately with U.S Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati who just hours before a crucial ‘must win’ group stage game in this summer’s Copa America Centenario, called together a group of soccer reporters and briefed them about Klinsmann’s job security - or lack of it.

To anyone with even half a political antenna, it was obvious the writing was on the wall for Klinsmann then. But annoyingly, for his critics, his team produced a good win against Costa Rica and then beat a decent Ecuador team before falling to Argentina in the semi-finals. It was just a little too good to justify firing him.

It also helps if a coach has friends in the business willing to speak up for him - other coaches, former players, media pundits. But amongst those employed in the American soccer community there were few Klinsmann supporters - even when things were going well.

And, contrary to some of the revisionist histories being written, they did go well for a few years. Under Klinsmann’s charge, the U.S beat old rivals Mexico at the Azteca Stadium for the first time in their history. In other friendly internationals they also enjoyed first ever wins over established world powers such as Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.

At the 2014 World Cup, few gave the U.S. much chance of getting out of a group that featured the future world and European champions - Germany and Portugal and a Ghana team that had beaten the U.S in 2006 and 2010.

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The outside world hailed the U.S’s gutsy performances but Klinsmann’s critics gave the impression of just holding their fire and they began sniping again after the extra-time loss to Belgium in the round of 16.

Things began going wrong with the Gold Cup campaign in 2015 which was well below expectations with the U.S losing to Jamaica in the semi-finals and then, in the play-off for the Confederations Cup, the Americans lost to Mexico - a disappointing result but hardly a shock against an El Tri team that is clearly more talented.

The knifes were now being sharpened and, as ESPN recently reported, the U.S. Soccer hierarchy began looking for a replacement around a year ago. Gulati’s intervention during Copa America did nothing to quash the impression that Klinsmann’s opponents were just waiting for the right moment to fire him.

Why was Klinsmann so isolated, actively disliked in some quarters and viewed with suspicion in others, long before the loss to Mexico and Costa Rica in the opening two qualifiers this month?

The answer is that the German was trying to be a lone revolutionary in a conservative environment which had little interest in his demands for change.

Even before he took the job, Klinsmann had made clear that he had a critique of the American soccer system as it has evolved over the past few decades. He continued to make the criticisms once in place - something that he saw as simply stating his opinion but which was seen by others in the game as undermining what they had achieved and what they stood for.

When he questioned the practices and structure of youth soccer, he upset coaches who have spent years trying to develop American players.

When he criticized Major League Soccer, whether it be its calendar or lack of promotion and relegation and absence of intense pressure, he upset the league and those who had worked to build it from its shaky foundations to where it is now.

When he urged his players to play in Europe, to test themselves at the highest level, he thought he was simply stating the obvious fact that players get better playing amongst the best. But MLS didn’t like it.

When Klinsmann expressed a fear, which proved to be prescient, that Michael Bradley’s performance levels might suffer from a move from top Italian club AS Roma to then struggling MLS club Toronto FC, Garber even called a media teleconference.

“Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we’re trying to do,” an angry Garber said.

“I’m demanding that he refrain from making comments that are critical of our players and damaging to our league.”

When, in the early days, Klinsmann talked about U.S. teams needing to have a more proactive approach and impose themselves on games—describing that as being more American—he bruised the feelings of those who played on Bruce Arena’s and Bob Bradley’s teams, or at least those coaches and their friends.

Arena publicly criticised Klinsmann, stated that the national team coach should be an American and questioned the amount of “foreign born” players on the increasingly multicultural roster.

Klinsmann did all this as a foreigner in an American soccer culture, including a soccer media, which has very thin skins when it comes to critical outsiders. Those who have built the game in this country are, in many ways, justifiably proud of what they have achieved and also, having seen their share of charlatans over the years, sceptical of foreigners who don’t understand “the American game” or “the American player”.

“Jurgen only knows Europe. He doesn’t know the United States as well as he needs to. He’s got to learn our culture and our system a little bit better,” Arena said after the World Cup and he was certainly not alone in those views.

To be clear, it wasn’t some nativist backlash that led Gulati to finally pull the trigger - Klinsmann was fired because there was a general feeling that the national team was going in the wrong direction and that qualification for Russia was in danger. Both are reasonable positions to have taken.

But there is no doubt his lack of support throughout his time in charge was influenced by him being a critical foreign voice.

The 65-year-old Arena is the favourite for the job now and the other names being put forward by pundits are overwhelmingly American.

“No one in Europe knows anything more about soccer than we do,” said Arena and clearly many in the game agree with him.

If a foreigner does get a chance to lead the United States in the future, they would be wise to learn from the Klinsmann experience — be the corporate man, talk up the ‘growth of the game’, don’t criticise anyone in the system or the system itself and just get on with the job.

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