USMNT: Jurgen Klinsmann's Enigmatic Coaching Strategies and Player Selections

Paul MillerContributor IIIJanuary 16, 2013

Jan 20, 2012; Glendale, AZ, USA; USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann watches during practice at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Hilderbrand-USA TODAY Sports

Jurgen Klinsmann has faced tough criticisms for his enigmatic national team approaches, strategies and player selections.

He has been questioned regarding tactics, heard claims of tactical ineptitude and seen derisive comments about his roster choices. Klinsmann even encountered a generalized complaint that he was creating a cultural identity crisis that threatened serious damage and embarrassment to the national team.

That was in 2006, and the national team was Germany. Those criticisms included a belief by some that he was trying to Americanize the German game, with unfamiliar approaches he seemingly must have picked up while living in Southern California.

His Germans exceeded domestic expectations for the World Cup they hosted to finish third.

A couple World Cup cycles later, and the same coach is hearing similar criticisms, except this time around he is coach of the USMNT.

Now, just as then, the criticisms aren’t universal.

In 2006, though some of the top-level criticism came from such German icons of the game as Franz Beckenbauer, there remained a large part of the German fandom that never stopped believing in their coach and his different, modernistic and even what was perceived as more cosmopolitan approach.

Fast forward to the United States of today, the criticisms aren't nearly as biting or omnipresent. This is because of what Klinsmann had achieved with the German national team, and also because U.S. Soccer has less to lose.

But they are out there. From strategies to on-field tactics to player selections, criticisms as well as praise can be found on nearly every American soccer blog.

In a way, it makes sense this coach moves in enigmatic ways because the man himself is an enigma. And now he's the USMNT's enigma, so let's take a deeper look at Klinsmann as the calendar continues to roll toward qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup.

The Coach's Experience

Klinsmann was extraordinarily inexperienced to step into the job as manager of the German national team. He came to that position without a single game under his coaching belt. 

Striking as that may sound, it was not unprecedented in Germany. The same was true of Beckenbauer, and his tenure worked out well for the Germans.

Like Beckenbauer, Klinsmann had extensive World Cup experience as a player. He was an attacker for Germany in three World Cups, including 1990, when the Germans won the competition in Italy.

Klinsmann’s experiences as a player may provide more clues to this puzzle. As a young player, he wanted to be among the best. So by his unimpeachable logic, the way to get there was to work harder than the players he was trying to catch.

He stubbornly clung to that logic throughout a successful club and international playing career, and now brings it into his coaching.

It is said an athlete can’t be taught to run faster. Don't try to tell Klinsmann that, because he believes (with the help of his older decathlete of a brother) he did teach and train himself to run faster, as well as to not tire as quickly.

With Klinsmann, the player and the coach, no conventional wisdom is safe. Anything new is worth a try. Anything that might provide an additional edge is worth pursuing, and no pursuit is conducted half-way.

After his Germans finished third in 2006, he declined an offer to remain with the team. Two years later, he was hired to manage Bayern Munich.

There, the earlier magic seemed to die, and Klinsmann was fired before the end of his first season.

In 2011, Bayern defender Philipp Lahm wrote in his autobiography that the players saw the end of Klinsmann's tenure long before it came.

Lahm leveled strong and specific criticisms. This wasn't just a complaint about playing time, or some of the usual things for which a coach might come under fire from a former player. Lahm wrote:

We practiced little more than fitness. Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before [the games] to discuss how we wanted to play. After six or eight weeks, all players knew it wouldn't work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation.

Klinsmann responded to the charges with maturity and professionalism. However, his assertion that Lahm just didn’t see the larger coaching perspective never seemed complete or satisfying, given the specificity of the criticisms.

Top-level youth coaches often employ a lack of tactical direction as a coaching technique. It forces players to expand beyond their dependence on the coach, and to better take the game into their own hands.

However, in the youth game, development is more important than results. As Lahm’s criticism would suggest, it is not something players expect to encounter at the highest professional levels.

Approach to the USMNT

It has only been a little over a year since Klinsmann took the reins, but those months have been eventful.

He came to the USMNT in 2011, promising the team would play attacking soccer. However, through the remainder of that year, the on-field appearances showed anything but a fulfillment of that promise.

There was a brief time when Klinsmann was criticized for not being as attack-oriented as his predecessor, Bob Bradley.

As late as last year, The Guardian even wrote, "...if [Klinsmann] made the overly cautious Germans fun, he has made the fun-loving Americans boring."

However, that particular criticism, like many, perhaps contained a grain of truth but also runs into a wall of counter indicators.

In 2012, tactical formation experiments seemed to come with every game, friendly or qualifier. And players were encouraged to push forward, take chances and do what they could to find the net. It may not have always been pretty, but most fans wouldn't call it boring.

Last year, the USMNT became the kind of team one might expect with an inexperienced former striker at the helm. The goals came, including five against Scotland. And they came at both ends of the field, because taking chances on one end inexplicably means exposing the other end.

At the other end, the USMNT had a growing defensive vulnerability that existed before Klinsmann came to town. In the next game after the Scotland friendly, the USMNT played Brazil in the Maryland suburbs of the nation's capital. 

Brazil tagged a 4-1 loss on the Americans.

In some ways, that game epitomized the year more so than any other, in which Klinsmann sought out friendlies against big sides (though often facing B teams, as was the case with Brazil), and then went on the attack.

The final score was hardly characteristic of the full game. In fact, one could argue that the U.S. created more scoring opportunities against the Brazilians in this game than they ever had before. There were fairly significant stretches in which it wasn't clear which team was stronger.

And there were other points in which the stronger team was more apparent. In the end, the difference was that extra spark of finishing capability. The Brazilians had more of that spark.

Is this part of a larger grand scheme or just the wanderings of a team and coach trying to find their way from one game to the next? That’s a hard question to answer.

It is interesting (and nerve wracking) that weeks away from the hexagonal opener, no one outside Klinsmann and his staff really has a firm idea of what formation the team is likely to employ.

There’s a fairly good chance of it including one or more defensive midfielders, both because of the U.S. defensive vulnerabilities in the middle and because Klinsmann is probably limited to 4-3-3 derivatives or risk alienating Claudio Reyna and others in the U.S. Soccer organization.

The Klinsmann Approach to Players

The Lahm criticism is unique in its specificity. And those specifics have not been refuted by anyone in that locker room, leaving us to believe that Klinsmann really did leave tactical decisions to the Bayern players.

Is it possible Klinsmann doesn’t know tactics well? That's a stretch, given his playing background. Plus, it is doubtful too many ever talked with Klinsmann and came away questioning his intelligence.

So, then, is it possible he was trying to develop Bayern players the way a youth coach might develop tactical awareness in younger players? As hard as it is to imagine, that possibility would seem to best explain Klinsmann's response.

Consider that possibility in the context of what transpired at USMNT qualifiers last summer, when the team adopted a 4-1-3-2 and 4-2-3-1 toggle that seemingly was directed on the field by Michael Bradley.

This may have been an example of what Klinsmann had been working toward in previous games. His first as USMNT coach was against Mexico in 2011, and Klinsmann's players entered into that friendly with specific, individualized tasks and responsibilities.

It was a great illustration of mind games a new coach can play with his athletes. Each was given his assignment, told to perfect that and then was free to play the game by ear. Midfielders were instructed that was the point each could go forward to support the attack.

Klinsmann presumably learned much about his players that day. Bradley worked on "perfecting" his assignment for 90 minutes. In contrast, it seemed Klinsmann's words had been forgotten by Jermaine Jones from the opening whistle, as he moved forward from his DM position on the first U.S. possession.

A heightened interest in player development also could help explain some oddities about Klinsmann's approach to U.S. players.

With the USMNT, Klinsmann certainly has taken what seems to be an unusual role as a career mentor for the players in his pool. Or maybe this is common among national team coaches, and Klinsmann is just more transparent about it.

The U.S. Soccer webpage indicates the approach is not common.

The USA’s efforts will be commanded by Jurgen Klinsmann, the former World Cup champion who brings a unique philosophy to the role of National Team coach, steeped in the deep rooted belief that helping a player challenge himself in all aspects of his life will ultimately bring about success on the field. 

Whether it is pushing players to accept greater challenges at more challenging levels of play, or helping players in other countries find appropriate medical specialists, this coach clearly believes in a hands-on approach with his players.

At USMNT camps, such as the one currently be held in California, Klinsmann stresses his holistic view of player development. Cue the earlier criticisms of unorthodoxy, but his camps are known for fitness training and individualized meal planning assistance and education.


Roster Decisions

No decisions made by a national team coach will be more scrutinized than his roster and starter selections.

Over the course of time, a coach has two opposing interests that impact roster decisions.

First, he wants to use his limited time to create as much familiarity as possible between the players who are likely to carry the banner in games that matter. This means finding and keeping the starters together as much as possible.

Second, he wants to develop the pool, provide opportunities for younger players entering that pool and ensure he isn’t missing anything with his starter assumptions. This means using friendlies and other less-significant competitions to bring in new players.

Balancing between the two interests is tricky.

Klinsmann, in 21 games, has never had the same lineup twice. Some of this was out of injury-based necessity. However, he has clearly leaned more toward the second interest thus far.

The result is a greater lack of clarity of who will be playing which positions, or at all, in the hexagonal opener just a few weeks away.

One aspect of the Klinsmann approach is the search for chemistry.

He found it with Germany, and presumably will go to as extreme lengths with the USMNT as he did with the German national team to replicate that.

How extreme? In 2006, he benched Oliver Kahn, who was considered one of the game’s greatest keepers at the time.

Why? This part gets fuzzy. Klinsmann wanted Kahn there, but on the bench as a supporter of younger players. It seemed to be about Kahn drawing more attention than the rest of the squad, which would create an imbalance. Here's a quote on the decision. Judge it for yourself.

There are specific roles that are even more important than, actually, the guy that is on the field. There’s only kind of one cake of energy. If you have 100 percent in that cake and you have maybe two players who take 40 percent of that energy, you have a huge problem.

By the way, Klinsmann is a journeyman baker, having completed his apprenticeship in the family business. That may explain the cake reference. As for what the rest of it means, let the quote digest and then take your best guess at whether the coach is a genius, a lunatic or both.

A Look at Three Players

Klinsmann's player choices over each of the last 21 games have met some criticism. It probably is safe to say that is true of every national coach over the same span.

With the USMNT, Klinsmann has been criticized over how many different players he's tried, who he played multiple times and, of course, who he hasn't given a shot.

And that doesn't even get into the questions of whether the right players are at the right positions. Again, these are criticisms every national coach faces.

This coach cannot be easily characterized. He fits into no single box neatly. He sometimes comes across as a pragmatist, other times as a theorist and still other times as an idealist. Consider the following examples.

In 2012, much was made out of what seemed a snub toward Jozy Altidore. The 23-year-old striker had looked solid in recent club play, but Klinsmann signaled that something was wrong with Altidore's attitude and work rate.

Note that Klinsmann himself made his first appearance for Germany at the age of 24. Altidore, a year younger, already had 50 caps. From Klinsmann's perspective, 23 is a time of growth rather than arrival.

Sufficiently snubbed, the striker was later given a chance for his 51st appearance with the USMNT during the friendly against Russia. If any player on the field worked harder than Altidore, it wasn't clear who that might have been.

Jermaine Jones has become a regular for the USMNT under Klinsmann, despite some periods of erratic play. At his best, Jones clearly is a quality midfielder, for Schalke and for the USMNT. But fans in the States don’t always see his best.

Klinsmann told NBC during a recent interview that he hears the criticism, but also that Jones brings an important piece of chemistry to the team. That quality is the tenacity of a street fighter. The coach specifically noted how that edginess can effect the play of opponents.

But it's more than game impact. Jones, Klinsmann believes, sends an invaluable message to teammates in training as well as games. 

Another frequent selection that has some fans scratching their heads is Kyle Beckerman, who currently is in his sixth January camp. Beckerman is a solid MLS player, but rarely has impressed at international levels. So why keep bringing him back, some wonder.

The answer goes back to Klinsmann’s desire for chemistry. That chemical mixture goes beyond the 11 on the field in this coach’s view, as per the Kahn role in 2006.

Beckerman adds something, according to the coach. He didn’t spell out exactly what, but just said:

I had players in the Germany squad, I brought them in, there were better players I left behind. But I brought them in because I knew they were going to push the other ones every day in training. They were always positive. Kyle Beckerman is not in the starting lineup but I know what Kyle Beckerman gives you if he’s not in the starting lineup. He’s a giver. And you need givers. When you go two months in such a stressful kind of campaign, you can only carry along a few takers—very, very few takers. If you can. Because sooner or later the energy will be gone.

Where This Leaves Us

Where does this leave the USMNT, so close as it is to its last round of qualifiers before the next World Cup? Objective people can come down on either side of that question.

Klinsmann seems destined to have a big impact on the USMNT. No one can know for sure if that impact will be good or bad. Maybe both.

Last year, the team had historic wins in Italy and Mexico, yet came dangerously close to not qualifying for the hexagonal. The USMNT won its group, and the top two go on. But there aren’t too many minutes of play that would have had to work out a little differently for the USMNT to finish third and out.

Some of the criticisms seem valid. Some less so.

In 2006, a big problem for Klinsmann was his Southern California home. When he started bringing in new training techniques, that was seen by some as the source of his Americanization of the German game.

His approaches seem no less foreign to some fans of the USMNT today, especially given the growing numbers of German-speaking players.

Klinsmann one day may well be heralded as the coach who delivered U.S. Soccer to the next level, or regarded as a mistake, like he was viewed at Bayern Munich. At this point, weeks away from the side's trip to Honduras, it would be difficult to establish which possibility holds the better odds.

That, in itself, is concerning. After more than a year, and after 21 games, the coach remains as much an enigma as ever.


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