A Tale of Two Klinsmanns: Technical Director & Coach
October 21, 2015
DURING HIS FIRST TWO YEARS as U.S. men’s national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann compiled an overall record of 27-10-7, won the 2013 Gold Cup (and all six matches during that tournament), secured the United States a first-place finish in CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, and set records for wins (16), winning percentage (61.4%), and consecutive wins (12) achieved during a single year.
In December 2013, on the back of the most successful run of games in recent history, U.S. Soccer signed Klinsmann to a four-year contract extension and expanded his role to include technical director of U.S. Soccer.
Klinsmann’s dual functions with U.S. Soccer require different skill sets and task him with different responsibilities. His job as coach is to develop the skills of his players, recruit players to the national team, monitor the performance of his players at their respective clubs, manage the other U.S. men’s coaches (goalkeeping coach, fitness coach, etc.), oversee training sessions, plan tactics for games, scout the opposition, select rosters for games, interact with the media, and win games.
As technical director, Klinsmann is responsible for supervising and expanding the country’s infrastructure for developing soccer talent, which includes selecting coaches for the youth national teams, helping design the curricula for the coaches of youth clubs, overseeing scouting, and increasing the federation’s footprint both in terms of its commercial presence (i.e., increasing revenues) and international reputation.
Since December 2013, U.S. fans have experienced a tale of two Klinsmanns—the coach and the technical director.
Klinsmann the coach has compiled a record of 15-11-7 during this span. He has led the team to the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup, lost the 2015 Gold Cup, and lost the (newly conceived) CONCACAF Cup, thereby eliminating the U.S. from competing at the 2017 Confederations Cup. Klinsmann’s winning percentage has dropped precipitously from 61.4% for games played during his first two years as coach to 45.4% for games played since December 2013.
Klinsmann the technical director, on the other hand, has overseen an astonishingly fruitful, ambitious, and expansive two years of U.S. soccer development.
Regardless of whether one approves of or is willing to credit Klinsmann with the changes implemented during his tenure, there is no denying that a raft of improvements have swept across the U.S. Soccer landscape in the past two years, the more radical of which (such as those that challenge the pay-to-play foundation on which U.S. Soccer was built) have convulsed the bedrock of U.S. Soccer. These changes include:
- Establishing the U-16 and U-19 national teams, giving U.S. Soccer a total of eight youth national teams (U-14 through U-20 and U-23) for both men and women.
- Establishing a U-12 age group in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) to start in the fall of 2016.
- Introducing new small-sided game standards for players U-6 to U-12 to play on smaller fields and give players more opportunities to develop on-the-ball skills and soccer intelligence.
- Retaining the Belgian consulting firm Double PASS to conduct an external audit of U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams, the Development Academy program, and USSDA clubs. (Double PASS conducted similar audits in Germany and Belgium during the past decade with the aim of improving their academies and national teams.)
- Increasing U.S. Soccer’s development budget by 50%, primarily through multi-million dollar sponsorship/commercial deals (U.S. Soccer’s official sponsors are AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Century 21, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Continental Tire, Coppertone, Degree Deodorant, Johnson & Johnson, Liberty Mutual, Marriott, Mondelez International, Nike, and Powerade).
- Increasing the number of USSDA clubs that are free for players from almost none to 34 (to give credit where credit is due these are primarily MLS academies), and increasing number of “tuition-free” USSDA clubs (where the only costs that accrue to players are players’ own travel and expenses).
- Nearly doubling the number of USSDA players receiving scholarships (from 168 players in 2014 to 264 players in 2015).
- Requiring that every USSDA club institute need-based financial aid programs for top level players.
- Aligning birth-year registration calendars to the calendar year (as opposed to the school year, as was previously the case) to bring the U.S. in line with international standards and combat the “relative age effect.”
- Creating two separate programming tracks for even-birth-year players and odd-birth-year players, thereby increasing the potential pool of participants for youth national teams.
- Establishing the Boys’ National Team Futures training camp for undersized players and/or players born in the second half of the year to improve talent identification.
- Establishing the Managing Director for National Team Advisory Services position (now occupied by Nelson Rodriguez) to provide counseling, guidance, and education to all national team players.
- Establishing the European-based Technical Advisor position (now occupied by Berti Vogts) to develop, scout, and recruit U.S. national team members.
- Implementing curriculum updates to all coaching courses (A through E).
- Establishing a coaching license that can be obtained online, the F license, and launching a digital coaching center (DCC) designed to increase the quality and accessibility of educational content, increase the interaction between candidates and instructors, and create consistent messaging with technical leaders. (In its first six months, the DCC registered more than 40,000 users and in excess of 20,000 F license holders.)
- Establishing the Youth Technical Director Course.
- Establishing an 18-month course for academy and technical directors that focuses on club and technical leadership, membership, and strategic planning.
- Increasing the number of international tournaments played by the youth national teams and the number of training centers conducted each year.
- Lobbying the NCAA to change college soccer into a Division I full academic-year sport to run from September through May.
- Hiring and firing various U.S. Soccer personnel with the youth national teams.
- Announcing plans for a future $75 million National Coaching Education Center in Kansas City, Kan.
- Marginally improving the performance of the U-23 team. Prior to Klinsmann’s appointment as technical director, the U-23 national team did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Post-Klinsmann, it remains to be seen whether the team will qualify for the 2016 Olympics—a two-legged home-and-away playoff against Colombia’s U-23 team in March 2016 will determine whether the U-23 team goes to Brazil next summer.
- Moderately improving the performance of the U-20 team. The U-20s did not qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup, and then qualified for the 2013 U-20 World Cup but came in last in Group A at that tournament. Post-Klinsmann, the U-20 team made it to the quarterfinals of the 2015 U-20 World Cup before being knocked out on penalties by eventual winners Serbia.
- Moderately improving the performance of the U-17 team. The U-17s team went out in the round of 16 at the 2011 U-17 World Cup and did not qualify for the 2013 U-17 World Cup. Post-Klinsmann, the U-17 team qualified for the 2015 U-17 World Cup and has a loss and a draw so far in the group stages.
AS YOU CAN SEE, Klinsmann’s big-picture influence on the development of U.S. Soccer is significant and largely positive. But his influence on the U.S. men’s national team is, at least for now, not.
Klinsmann’s very real deficiencies are almost all small-picture problems: a lack of tactical acumen; an over-reliance on fitness training resulting in a disproportionately high number of soft-tissue and muscle injuries; fielding players out of position; excessive lineup experimentation (which minimizes the development of team chemistry); preferential treatment of certain players not empirically based on their performances (which results in Klinsmann fielding players who are injured and overlooking players who deserve call-ups); airing grievances with players publicly; accelerating youth prospects to the national team too quickly; and refusing to accept responsibility for game losses.
Klinsmann’s drawbacks as a coach are mitigated by his insights regarding overarching principles that the firmament of U.S. Soccer sometimes ignores. In order for the U.S. national team to compete with the best in the world, its players need to be competing against the best in the world, which means some national team players must play in Europe.
In 2005, Javier Aguirre, former coach of Mexico, explained the U.S. men’s national teams’ gains on El Tri to Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl.
For me, it’s easy…In the last 10 years the Americans have had 30 to 40 players in Europe. We have two or three players in Europe, and that it is the great difference. Mexico doesn’t have that type of competition.
Ten years hence, the positions of the two nations have reversed. While Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley now play domestically, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Raúl Jiménez, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Herrera, Jesús “Tecatito” Manuel Corona, and Carlos Vela ply their trades in Europe.
The pool of players from which Klinsmann has to draw is notably shallower than his predecessors in terms of the number of players competing at the highest level. Klinsmann is at a disadvantage in this regard and demands that he produce better outcomes should be tempered when comparing the pool of players at his disposal to the pool from a decade ago. Which is not to say Klinsmann’s head should not laid on the chopping block when the U.S. fails but rather the public should appreciate that, just as Barack Obama and Ben Bernanke had a finite ability to actually alter the condition of the economy using public policy during a recession (even when employing untested tools like Michael Woodford’s quantitative easing), a coach’s fate is predicated on not only his performance but other factors such as public will that punishment be effected.
Klinsmann’s focus on implementing performance-driven standards, increasing the intensity of practices, and encouraging players to focus on individual development and accountability is part of the dialogue that is necessary for developing a first-rate national team. While it’s fine for a contingent of the national team to play in MLS, when a player’s development reaches the outer limits of what MLS can offer, it is laudable that his coach wants to nudge him out of the nest.
Though no one path is ideal for every player, there are players who would be best be served by someone telling them, “Wil Trapp, Matt Miazga, Jordan Morris, Perry Kitchen, Bill Hamid, Darlington Nagbe, Sebastian Lletget, Luis Gil, Dillon Serna, Kellyn Acosta, Tommy Thompson, Erik Palmer-Brown, if you can get a European passport, do so and go to Europe. Go to the best team you can find that will still give you regular first-team minutes and learn all you can.”
Assuming that Klinsmann is not going to beneficently volunteer to step down as coach but remain as technical director, the only feasible options are for U.S. Soccer to either fire or keep both Klinsmanns. Presented with these choices, I would vote to keep the Klinsmanns. Here’s why:
1) U.S. Soccer can hire a tactician to work for Klinsmann, and it’s easier to hire a coach with a deep understanding of soccer tactics than it is to hire a technical director with a deep understanding of both how to restructure a country’s soccer architecture and U.S. soccer culture. Understanding tactics is only one component of Klinsmann’s job and he has enough strengths as a soccer coach (e.g., recruiting) that his tactical naiveté need not be a death knell for the national team.
Steve Jobs famously never wrote a line of computer code or designed original software for Apple. Instead, he partnered with the most talented software engineer he could find, Steve Wozniak, and delegated the work for which he was clearly unqualified. The best companies, government agencies, NGOs, and militias are led not by those who are best qualified to perform every task that falls under their chain of command, but rather those who identify those most qualified and then delegate to them. Klinsmann once said of his time in Germany, “I had to delegate authority to the people on my staff. That means you shave away the hierarchy.” So if Klinsmann doesn’t understand tactics let’s hire him someone who does.
2) There is no viable alternative. The Klinsmann-out bandwagon has bona fide justification for seeking his ouster but with whom should he be replaced? None of the MLS coaches commonly bandied about as alternatives are ready, not Jason Kreis (eight years head coaching experience), Peter Vermes (five years), or Óscar Pareja (four years).
Bruce Arena was a professional soccer coach for 20 years before being appointed national team coach. Ditto Bob Bradley. Both had proven winning records before they took over, and giving the job to someone whose curriculum vitae consists of a few seasons in MLS seems imprudent.
If U.S. Soccer wants an international candidate, it faces different concerns, namely that U.S. soccer culture is totally different from that of Europe, and any coach who assumes the reins of the national team needs to comprehensively understand and accept these differences.
One can only imagine the look that would befall Carlo Ancelotti’s face upon being told that MLS does not abide by FIFA international breaks or that Sporting Kansas City doesn’t want to release Matt Besler because it has a game against RSL that weekend. Who wants to explain pay-to-play to David Moyes? Or why there are only nine full time soccer scouts in this country?
Mexico’s Federation faced a similar problem when it attempted to hire Marcelo Bielsa following his resignation from Marseille. Many top coaches accustomed to the European system are unwilling to accept arbitrary and anachronistic limits on their authority.
Klinsmann lived in this country for 13 years before becoming national team coach, and like it or not he is uniquely qualified to appreciate MLS as the weirdly interesting amalgam of European soccer league and American sports league that it is. Before Klinsmann took over, he met with and studied great American coaches including Phil Jackson, Pete Carroll, and Mike Krzyzewski. And his vast network of connections and influence in Germany (where one of the strongest soccer leagues is located) is of genuine value to all U.S. national teams.
Above all, it’s hard to imagine that Sunil Gulati, who spent years wooing Klinsmann and doubled-down on his investment in the coach with the December 2013 contract extension, would abandon Klinsmann and admit that he erred in his assessment of Klinsmann’s coaching ability.
3) To preserve the balance of power within the United States Soccer Federation. The U.S.S.F. is the governing body of U.S. Soccer and its Board of Directors is currently comprised of 17 members: Sunil Gulati (President); Mike Edwards (Vice-President); Dan Flynn (nonvoting CEO and Secretary General); Dr. S. Robert Contiguglia (nonvoting Past President); Jeff Agoos, Chris Ahrens, and Cindy Cone (Athlete Representatives); Don Garber and Alec Papadakis (Pro Council Representatives); Arthur Mattson and John Motta (Adult Council Representatives); Evelyn Gill and John Sutter (Youth Council Representatives); John Collins (At-Large Representative); and Carlos Cordeiro, Fabian Nunez, and Donna E. Shalala (Independent Directors).
Of the 15 members that have voting rights in U.S.S.F, at least seven have direct or indirect ties to Major League Soccer. Don Garber is MLS Commissioner; Sunil Gulati is former deputy commissioner of MLS; Jeff Agoos is a former MLS player; Cindy Cone is a former Manager of the Portland Thorns (the Timbers’ NWSL team); John Sutter’s organization, U.S. Youth Soccer, is situated in the same facility complex as FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium; Fabian Nunez led lobbying efforts that sought to have MLS award Sacramento an MLS franchise in the suburb of Elk Grove; and Donna Shalala was solicited by David Beckham during his efforts to land a joint stadium with the University of Miami when Shalala was the university’s President.
There are two primary operative forces in U.S. Soccer, personified by Don Garber on the one hand and Klinsmann on the other. Garber, undoubtedly the most successful soccer commissioner MLS has ever had, represents one school of thought about soccer in this country. Klinsmann represents the other.
While it is proper and necessary that MLS have a substantial voice within U.S.S.F, it is worthwhile to include a counterweight to MLS among U.S. Soccer’s biggest decision-makers, since it would be foolish to ignore that in a “Universe of Soccer” Venn diagram, MLS’ agenda does not perfectly overlap the interests of the national team.
Of course, being reflexively anti-MLS is just as myopic as being reflexively anti-Klinsmann, but it is in the best interests of the U.S. national team to ensure that Klinsmann’s perspective remains part of U.S. Soccer.
Wendy Thomas is an attorney and contributor to American Soccer Now. Follow her on Twitter.