The Complicated Coaching Career of USMNT Manager Jurgen Klinsmann

John D. Halloran@JohnDHalloranContributor IIFebruary 5, 2015

Head coach of United States soccer team, Jurgen Klinsmann, gives directions during a training session in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. The US national soccer team is on a training program to prepare for the World Cup tournament that starts in June. (AP Photo/Nelson Antoine)
Nelson Antoine/Associated Press

Trying to take an objective view of United States men’s national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann is nearly impossible.

Whether one is looking at his time with the German national team, his stint at Bayern Munich or his three-and-a-half years in charge of the USMNT, Klinsmann has not been one to avoid controversy.

And no matter where he has managed, he has left behind a slew of supporters and detractors. So, what is Klinsmann’s true legacy as a coach?

Take a look at the evidence, and decide for yourself.

Manager of Germany

Klinsmann's first coaching job came as national team manager for his native Germany. Hired after Germany crashed out of the group stage in the 2004 European Championship, Klinsmann coached the team from July 2004 to July 2006. In his tenure—which most classify as a success—Klinsmann went 20-6-8 (win-loss-draw format) and led the Germans to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup. 

MARK J. TERRILL/Associated Press

However, a closer inspection of Klinsmann's record with Germany tells a more complicated story. Using FIFA’s rankings from July 2006, those published only days after his last match in charge of Germany, Klinsmann’s record against top-10 opponents was a paltry 1-3-6 overall—with his one win coming against Portugal in the third-place game at the 2006 World Cup.

In the 2006 World Cup, Germany also beat Costa Rica, Poland and Ecuador. In the knockout rounds, Germany beat Sweden in the round of 16 and Argentina (in penalties) in the quarterfinals before losing to Italy in the semifinals.

On the positive side, the Germans under Klinsmann won four World Cup games in a row (the match against Argentina in the quarterfinals officially counts as a draw) with their only loss coming to the eventual champions. Less impressive were the facts that the Germans did it on home soil and didn’t face any significant competition until the quarterfinals.

By contrast, the German team that won the 2014 World Cup beat three teams ranked in the top 10 on their way to the title, including a 7-1 dismantling of hosts Brazil in the semifinals.

After the 2006 World Cup, Klinsmann stepped down from the German national team. Two years later he would return to coaching with Bayern Munich.

Bayern Munich

Diether Endlicher/Associated Press

In the summer of 2008, Klinsmann took over at legendary Bundesliga side Bayern Munich. Much like he did when he would eventually come to take charge of the USMNT, Klinsmann burst onto the scene adamant about making big, sweeping changes. He was credited with bringing new philosophies and even new-age training ideas to a club steeped in tradition.

However, his tenure would last less than a full season as he was unceremoniously fired in April 2009.

With Bayern, Klinsmann once again left a mixed legacy about his coaching abilities. While he was fired midseason, Bayern were only three points out of first place with five points to go when it happened. And although they had been eliminated from the Champions League by an embarrassing 4-0 scoreline, they had done so at the hands of Barcelona—the eventual champions.

In fact, of Klinsmann’s 10 Champions League games with Bayern, the loss to Barcelona was their only one. Klinsmann also believed that his changes would help the team going forward. When fired, Klinsmann said in a statement (h/t Spiegel Online International), “We have laid the foundation for the future.”

The next year, Bayern would go on to win both the Bundesliga title and the German Cup.

But Klinsmann’s “failed” stint at Bayern also led to a more complicated, albeit retrospective, legacy to his time as head coach of the German national team. By the time Klinsmann was fired from Bayern, the German national team was surging.

Now under Joachim Low—who had been Klinsmann’s assistant with Germany—the Germans were second in the world. This fact, along with Klinsmann’s “failures” at Bayern, would lead many to conclude that it was Low’s tactical brilliance and not Klinsmann behind the Germans' turnaround between 2004 and 2006.

MICHAEL PROBST/Associated Press

Under Low, now well on his way to a reputation as a tactical mastermind, the Germans took second at the 2008 Euros and matched Germany’s 2006 World Cup finish with another third-place finish in 2010 (without the advantage of playing on their home soil). Then, in 2012, the Germans finished third at the Euros before winning the World Cup in 2014.

The belief that Germany’s resurgence was really due to Low seemed to gain even more credibility in 2011, when international star Philipp Lahm, who played under Klinsmann with Germany and at Bayern, blasted Klinsmann in a tell-all autobiography in 2011.

About Klinsmann’s reign as coach of Bayern Munich, Lahm said (h/t Bild via Sporting News):

We practically only practiced fitness under Klinsmann. There was very little technical instruction and the players had to get together independently before the game to discuss how we wanted to play. All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.

To be fair, Lahm was trying to sell a book at the time, and there are still those who still defend Klinsmann’s legacy in Germany as a manager.

Oliver Bierhoff, who worked with Klinsmann in 2006, said in 2013, per The Guardian's Marcus Christenson: “[Klinsmann] changed a lot. He introduced speed, quick passing, movement, going forward, and got the team to play the ball forwards and not, like we have in the past, sideways.”

Leading the United States

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 01:  U.S. Soccer President (L) Sunil Gulati officially announces (R) Jurgen Klinsmann as the new head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team during a press conference at NikeTown on August 1, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Tr
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

In the fall of 2011, following the United States' collapse in the 2011 Gold Cup and the firing of Bob Bradley, Klinsmann took over the United States men’s national team.

But anyone hoping this would finally deliver a more definitive verdict on Klinsmann’s abilities as a coach would be out of luck.

Coming into the job, Klinsmann had already correctly identified many key areas of weakness in the U.S. model. First, he recognized that the primary goal of American soccer players was not to turn pro, but to earn a college scholarship (ironically enough, Klinsmann’s son will be playing college soccer next fall).

And a major cause of that problem was also a problem in and of itself—that American soccer caters primarily to the upper class in America.

Because most academy-level teams (more in 2011 than now) require high fees in a pay-to-play structure, lower-class players are often shut out of the development system in America. This is the inverse of the rest of the world, where the lower classes often provide the most prolific players.

But while Klinsmann seemed to have a good grasp of America’s unique development problems, on the field, he quickly produced the same puzzling results he had produced everywhere else. In the summer of 2012, the United States began their summer with a 5-1 thrashing of Scotland. In the game, the U.S. displayed some of the most free-flowing, attacking play seen in quite a long time, and fans were giddy.

But the quick start under Klinsmann only masked problems to come. Days later, the U.S. could only manage a lethargic 0-0 draw with Canada. That was followed by a number of shaky moments in a 3-1 win over lowly Antigua and Barbuda and then a 1-1 draw to Guatemala.

The Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala matches were the start of 2014 World Cup qualifying—and it almost ended before it got started. After a loss and win to Jamaica in September, the U.S. entered the October qualifiers in a do-or-die scenario.

For those matches, Klinsmann announced a roster that once again brought the ire of fans. Calling up Eddie Johnson—who hadn’t appeared for the team in two years—and Alan Gordon to help lead his attack, Klinsmann left Chris Wondolowski and Jozy Altidore at home. Against Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. struggled and needed a 90th-minute goal to find a 2-1 win.

But again, Klinsmann had the last laugh. Both goals in the game were scored by Johnson, and the assist on the game-winner had come from Gordon.

Still, the U.S. headed into the final game of the semifinal round of qualifying with no breathing room and needing a result against Guatemala to advance. In the fifth minute of that match, Carlos Ruiz got in behind the U.S. defense and scored. As the results stood at that moment, the U.S. was not going to the 2014 World Cup.

Eventually, the team recovered and went on to win 3-1. It advanced to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, commonly known as “the hex.”

Feb 6, 2013; San Pedro Sula, HONDURAS; USA defender Timmy Chandler (2) reacts during a 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Honduras at Estadio Olimpico. Honduras defeated the United States 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When the U.S. began “the hex” in February 2013, complications remained. First, the team dropped its opener 2-1 to Honduras. Klinsmann came under fire for implementing an odd off-balance formation in the match and selecting a roster full of German-based players for a game that was to take place in the Honduran jungle.

Predictably, the unacclimated team wilted in the heat.

Headed into its next qualifier in March, all hell broke loose. Brian Straus published an article for Sporting News titled, “Friendly fire: U.S coach Jurgen Klinsmann's methods, leadership, acumen in question,” which included interviews with 22 people connected with the U.S. program, including many players.

In a series of damning quotes—and with a familiarity that will still resonate with some U.S. fans today—many of the players bashed Klinsmann’s lack of tactical fortitude:

“It was one of those things where Jurgen woke up the next day and wanted to try something we weren’t familiar with.”—Anonymous player.

“The [defense] never played together in any game, let alone a Hex. The back four is all about jelling. It’s a frying pan. We don’t have time to learn.”—Goalkeeper Tim Howard.

“[The players are] overtrained and undercoached.”—Source.

“He just threw guys out there and played.”—Source.

JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

One day after the article was published, the U.S. played Costa Rica at home in a snowstorm. Riddled with injuries—and surviving several attempts to get the game cancelled due to the blizzard—the U.S. squad went on to win 1-0. Four days later it drew Mexico 0-0 at the Estadio Azteca, and its World Cup qualifying campaign was back on track.

The summer of 2013 saw Klinsmann and the USMNT hit several high notes. Although it was handled fairly easily by the Belgians in a friendly, the U.S. beat Germany several days later and then went 3-0 in World Cup qualifying in June. In July, the U.S. won the Gold Cup.

But Klinsmann’s success in the Gold Cup also saw mixed reviews. Despite the fact that the team had won, it had done so against a slew of CONCACAF “B” teams. To be fair, the U.S. also fielded its “B” team—but this was not the same quality of tournament that had gotten Bob Bradley fired in 2011.

In the fall of 2013, the U.S. continued to play well, earning a 2-0 win over Mexico to secure qualification. Then having already advanced and with nothing to play for other than pride, the team finished with wins over Jamaica and Panama—the latter of which kept archrival Mexico alive.

While some would point to the fact that Mexico had self-destructed in qualifying, the U.S. had finished at the top of CONCACAF—a region which would see three teams advance to the knockout rounds in the 2014 World Cup.

Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

The story in 2014 would be dominated by World Cup preparations. Although Klinsmann shocked the soccer world by dropping legend Landon Donovan, the U.S. looked good in its warm-up matches with three straight wins over Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria.

In the World Cup itself, it advanced out of the “Group of Death” with a win over Ghana, a draw to Portugal and a tight 1-0 loss to Germany. Then, in the round of 16, the Americans fell to the Belgians, despite the heroic efforts of their goalkeeper, Tim Howard.

But once the tournament was over, several questions surfaced. As patriotic excitement faded, many Americans began to question whether Klinsmann had really improved the team. Yes, it had advanced from the Group of Death but had been fairly lucky to beat Ghana and collapsed late against Portugal. And the U.S. was thoroughly dominated by Belgium, despite the tight scoreline.

The Ghanaian and Portuguese sides, while entering the tournament highly rated, suffered disastrous campaigns and were clearly not at their best when the U.S. played them. The Ghanaian team nearly walked out of the tournament after not being paid, and Portugal suffered a bizarre string of injuries and suspensions before their game against the U.S.

On the injury front, Klinsmann and his training staff came under criticism after four U.S. players suffered muscle tears during the tournament. Those injuries only reiterated previous concerns that Klinsmann was overtraining the team with two-a-day practices and morning “empty-stomach” runs.

In terms of tactics, Klinsmann’s use of Bradley as an attacking midfielder, his failure to bring a like-for-like replacement for Jozy Altidore—who was injured only minutes into the U.S.’s opening game—and his benching of Kyle Beckerman in the knockout round came under criticism.

The U.S. was also far from an attacking presence in the tournament and used the same bunker-and-counter strategy that had become so hated by American fans under Bradley. And, in the end, the U.S. didn’t go any further than it had in 1994, 2002 or 2010—not exactly progress.

SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 01: DaMarcus Beasley of the United States controls the ball during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie McD
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Still, several of Klinsmann’s roster selections—especially his more controversial ones—proved their worth.

John Anthony Brooks scored the game-winner against Portugal; Kyle Beckerman vastly exceeded expectations; Omar Gonzalez and DeAndre Yedlin played surprisingly well; the DaMarcus Beasley-as-a-left-back experiment worked; Jermaine Jones vindicated his poor performances in previous friendlies; and Julian Green scored a goal with his first touch.

In his time with the U.S., Klinsmann has also proved to be a boon in terms of his recruitment of dual nationals. Under Klinsmann, the USMNT has cap-tied Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, Terrence Boyd, Aron Johannsson, Brooks, Gonzalez and Green. It also looks on track to nab Arsenal starlet Gedion Zelalem.

However, in recent months, Klinsmann has once again ignited controversy over his methods. Since the World Cup, he has continued to experiment with the squad and his tactics.

And while experimentation should be the norm at this point in the 2018 World Cup cycle, the fact remains that in three-and-a-half years in charge, Klinsmann has never stopped experimenting—not even in his World Cup preparations or the tournament itself.

Three-and-a-half years into his tenure, Klinsmann has done little to put his stamp on the team. Absent of creating or developing any identifiable formation, style or system of play, Klinsmann has instead continued to wander from idea to idea with seemingly no direction or coherent vision.

And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the U.S. is 1-5-3 in its last nine games or the fact that the team has developed a knack for collapsing late in matches. The U.S. has also given up second-half goals in eight of those nine games, including nine goals after the 75-minute mark.

After the loss to Chile, Klinsmann angered many fans with his unwillingness to take responsibility for the team’s struggles. Instead of recognizing that he may have chosen the wrong players for the roster, the wrong starting lineup or the wrong tactics, he has repeatedly blamed his player’s lack of fitness, including recently to MLSSoccer.com's Scott French (h/t Yahoo Sports).

Most recently, not willing to back down, he has started blaming fans and the media for their lack of soccer savvy.

But still, these are results in friendlies and mean nothing. And, as we’ve seen before, this most recent spate of results don’t offer a definitive verdict on Klinsmann’s coaching career—it just adds another layer to the enigma that already existed.

Follow me on Twitter @JohnDHalloran.

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