All is not well, it would seem, with the United States men's national team. But with World Cup qualification heating up and a bombshell article rocking the boat, now is the time to address and correct the problems that plague the program, whatever they might be.
In a ground-shaking article released Tuesday, Sporting News' Brian Straus reported on growing discontent within the U.S. team ahead of Friday's crucial CONCACAF World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in Denver. Straus' reporting, which relied on anonymous figures within the team and the U.S. soccer community, is top-quality and worth your time.
It's also frightening.
The quotes and story paint a picture of an American team rife with in-fighting, distrust and confusion. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, meanwhile, comes off as a man possibly unsuited to lead the program.
Straus' article provides so much insight into the team and its internal dynamics that it's worth multiple read-throughs. If you haven't already, you really should read the entire article for yourself. Here is the link again.
Near the beginning, after an anecdote about veteran defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra being left out of last month's qualifier in Honduras, Straus presents three main themes of the article. I quote them below:
— Klinsmann and chief assistant Martin Vasquez either lack the tactical acumen and game-day chops to successfully lead the team or fail to communicate their wishes effectively.
— Too much time and too many resources are spent on initiatives that don’t translate to the field.
— Constant lineup changes and building resentment over the perceived importance and attitude of the German-born players are harming team chemistry.
Shortly after the article was posted, Bocanegra released a statement on his Facebook page. The statement defends Klinsmann, saying Klinsmann "has always been up front with players about where they stand and where he sees them going."
Those words are powerful coming from Bocanegra, a highly experienced player who was left off the U.S. roster to face Costa Rica and Mexico this week and next. They should also help us realize that not everything in Straus' report should be considered earth-shattering. Jealousy, disagreements and interpersonal dynamics are issues every team must deal with. The U.S. is far from alone here. For that reason, I won't focus on that.
Instead, I want to address two issues. The first relates to some of the players' complaints about the style Klinsmann is trying to instill in the team. The second is about tactics, Klinsmann's main assistant and both of their performances in past coaching gigs.
One player told Straus that the U.S. players might not be ready to play the style Klinsmann wants. The article quotes the unnamed U.S. player as saying:
They want us to play the beautiful game, but we’re not a technical team like the Germans. We’re not Spain or Brazil. What we’re good at is we work hard, we fight and we compete. We have great athletes and we’re a good counterattacking team. Maybe we need to go back to what we’re good at.
This struck me as troubling, and I'm not alone. The player is right that hard work and fitness have been the Americans' strong suits in recent years, and those strong suits have led to appearances in the knockout stages of the 1994, 2002 and 2010 World Cups.
Reading those words, however, brought me back to my days working in the newspaper industry and the collision of new media and old. When I started in the business, new media were beginning to emerge as viable news-gathering options, as well as tools to connect with readers. Forward-looking editors and managers pushed for their use; some veterans pushed back, citing the long-standing success of the industry.
This is an imperfect comparison, of course. Nations like Brazil and Germany have not had more success than the U.S. in international soccer because they embraced social media. A good deal of their success has been due to a higher level of talent, but those countries have also made the most out of their talent by using the latest innovations and by fostering new approaches to playing the game.
Klinsmann's job, as he said when he was hired, is not to do the same things his predecessors did. His job was and is to help the program take the next step.
"Soccer in the U.S. has come a long way and has the opportunity to move further," he said at his introductory news conference (via New York Times). "But there’s still a long way to go.”
To use an example from the club game, imagine if a billionaire bought out English club Stoke City and set out to make the Potters a powerful team not only in England but in Europe. The owner would most likely bring in a new coach with a new philosophy—and would most likely expect the Potters to adopt a style different from the physical approach for which they are currently known.
In that case, a player who suggested a return to the old ways would be out of sync with the club, its directors and its ambitions. This analogy is also inexact, but I think it can be instructive. Just because a certain style produced some satisfactory results in the past, that doesn't mean the same approach will work when the team's objectives have changed.
That leads us to the second point: Klinsmann's goals and his tactical plans to bring them about.
In that introductory news conference in 2011, Klinsmann also spoke about changing the U.S. style to a more attacking brand of soccer. Fans, however, have been largely disappointed in seeing this happen.
From his frequent selections of multiple defensive-minded players in the same midfield, to the disjointed, ugly performance last month in Honduras, Klinsmann has often appeared unable to provide the U.S. with a strong tactical plan, whether it's based on an attacking philosophy or not.
The comments in Straus' article blame both Klinsmann and assistant Martin Vasquez for this. Looking at both men's previous coaching experience, the players might have a point here.
Klinsmann's most impressive coaching performance came with his native Germany at the 2006 World Cup. With a young, unfancied team, Klinsmann led Germany to third place on home soil. He resigned after the World Cup and left the team in the hands of Joachim Löw, who led Die Mannschaft to another third-place finish four years later in South Africa and a semifinal berth at Euro 2012.
Löw was widely viewed as the tactical guru of that 2006 German team, and Klinsmann himself even hinted that was the case. Vasquez currently fills that role with the U.S. team, and according to Straus' sources, he is "in over his head."
Vasquez served as Klinsmann's assistant when Klinsmann took over Bayern Munich in 2008. Klinsmann was sacked after less than a season on the job, and defender Philipp Lahm later blasted Klinsmann's approach in a book, especially criticizing Klinsmann tactically.
After leaving Munich, Vasquez had a brief spell with Chivas USA, leading the Los Angeles-based club to its worst record since its inaugural season. When Klinsmann hired him for the U.S. staff, Vasquez was working with Real Salt Lake's youth academy.
Comparing Vasquez to Löw—or almost anyone to Löw—is probably unfair, but based on their history together it's hard not to see a link between Klinsmann's tactical deficiencies and his association with Vasquez.
Thus, finding a new Löw—a shrewd tactical expert—for the U.S. national team could be one of the most important steps Klinsmann takes or doesn't take in his tenure.
The bottom line is that the U.S. team has problems that need working out. Klinsmann is a World Cup winner whose opinions should be respected. They should not, however, be treated as gospel.
Klinsmann can still be the man who leads the U.S. to the next level, whatever that might be. For that to happen, though, the players need to be on board—and, perhaps, so does a new tactician.