Misfortune? Mismanaged? A Defense of Klinsmann
July 27, 2015
WITH A 2-1 EXTRA-TIME LOSS to Panama, in penalties, on Saturday afternoon, the 2015 Gold Cup mercifully came to an end for the United States men’s national team.
By the only measure that counts—winning the tournament—the U.S.’s campaign this summer was a failure. The team did not make the final for the first time since 2003, a year in which the U.S. lost in the semifinals to Brazil, which was participating in the Gold Cup as a guest team.
In the aftermath of the U.S.’s semifinal loss to Jamaica this past Wednesday, which ended the team’s hopes of winning the tournament and earning an automatic berth to the 2017 Confederations Cup, many fans and pundits—mistakenly, I would argue—blamed the Americans’ failure on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Over the course of his four-year career as manager of the U.S., Klinsmann has repeatedly made decisions that caused observers to scratch their heads—from his roster selections to his starting lineups to his formations.
And in the wake of Wednesday’s loss and the failure to advance to the Gold Cup final, those same areas once again have come under scrutiny.
The biggest area of criticism from Wednesday seemed to be Klinsmann’s decision to use Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks as his first-choice center back pairing, as both players had experienced their fair share of gaffes during in the tournament. However, neither played particularly poorly in the loss to Jamaica and there weren’t many other good options at Klinsmann’s disposal.
Decision to stick with Alvarado and Brooks was a bad one after early struggles in the tournament. They weren’t ready. #USAvJAM
— Doug McIntyre (@DougMacESPN) July 23, 2015
Klinsmann’s other center back choices on the 35-man preliminary roster were Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Michael Orozco, and Tim Ream—none of whom appeared to be an ideal choice heading into this tournament.
While Gonzalez has had strong moments for the U.S. in big games in the past, he has also shown a penchant for mind-numbing mistakes and is certainly no favorite of many fans. Prior to the Gold Cup, few were calling for him to be a starter.
Regarding Besler, it’s hard to see how anyone who has watched the U.S. since last summer’s World Cup can argue he should have even been on the Gold Cup roster, let alone a starter. While Besler was strong in Brazil—up until extra-time against Belgium—he has been a shadow of his former self since then for both club and country. And there are few U.S. fans or pundits (myself excluded), who think Orozco is international quality.
I think Romelu Lukaku ruined Matt Besler.
— Usry (@RobUsry) October 27, 2014
Perhaps Tim Ream should have been given a longer look, as he did play well against Haiti in the group stage (and his goal-line clearance against Panama was superb), but in Ream’s previous U.S. appearances, he has always looked a step too slow, or a bit too weak, for the international level.
Other than that, Klinsmann had no real alternatives at center back. Other candidates like Jermaine Jones (his merits as a cental defender notwithstanding) and Steve Birnbaum (who showed well in the January camp friendlies) were injured while Geoff Cameron was withheld by his club.
In total, Brooks and Alvarado have started five games together in their nascent international careers. In that time, they have lost only once and, on the winning side, were the starting duo for the U.S.’s recent away victories over the Netherlands and Germany.
Another criticism of Klinsmann—for this tournament and prior—has been his continued selection of Timothy Chandler. Over his time with the national team, Chandler has repeatedly looked disinterested, unfocused, and aloof. However, Chandler’s performances in this Gold Cup were better than most of his past play and Chandler wasn’t even on the field for the semifinal loss to Jamaica.
Additionally, Klinsmann’s stubbornness with players like Chandler has often paid off in the past. He stuck with Jones through a series of poor performances in the year leading up to the 2014 World Cup—performances that are long forgotten in the wake of Jones’ outstanding in Brazil.
Despite a Chandler-like indifference at times prior to last summer, Jones was the engine of the U.S. midfield in Brazil and scored a stunning goal against Portugal. Jones is now revered as a cult hero within the American fan base, only a year removed from some insisting he shouldn’t have made the World Cup roster.
Like Jones and potentially like Chandler, Klinsmann’s persistence and faith through hard times has paid off with other players. Bobby Wood was widely lambasted by U.S. fans this fall as he wasted numerous, and golden, scoring opportunities. (I was also a vocal critic of Wood.)
Yet Klinsmann continued to call Wood up—even as he suffered through a shocking run of poor form at the club level. Last month, Wood scored the game-winners against the Netherlands and Germany.
Similarly, many thought Klinsmann was nuts to revive the “DaMarcus Beasley as a left back” experiment—until it worked. They thought Kyle Beckerman shouldn’t go to Brazil—where he played quite well. The same was thought of selecting Brooks over Clarence Goodson—until Brooks scored the winner against Ghana.
Klinsmann’s faith in certain players has been repaid by Brek Shea, Brad Evans, and Eddie Johnson—all of whom scored big goals for the U.S. over the years.
While Klinsmann’s maddening tendency to not take responsibility for the team’s failures (something I examined for ASN in depth back in February) certainly must drive some of his players mad, many others have clearly responded to his continued faith in them. Part of coaching is going with the players you trust—a strategy Klinsmann clearly adheres to and something that engenders loyalty.
Putting this Gold Cup failure into context is also important. Some have argued that former coach Bob Bradley was fired for less, but Bradley’s firing also followed a long period where many believed the U.S. was underperforming.
Klinsmann’s failures, on the other hand, have always been buttressed with high-profile wins in friendlies; winning the 2013 Gold Cup; finishing first in the hexagonal; and getting out of the group of death in Brazil.
Bradley did win his group in the 2010 World Cup, but comparing that group (comprised of England, Slovenia, and Algeria) to the one the U.S. faced in 2014 (Ghana, Portugal, and Germany) is ridiculous. And the gold standard of American World Cup performances in the modern era, the 2002 World Cup, was accomplished by Bruce Arena, who then took a No. 5-ranked U.S. into the 2006 World Cup four years later only to be crushed by the Czech Republic, tie Italy on an own goal, and lose to Ghana—all in the group stage.
Another favorite pastime of Klinsmann critics is to question his reliance of dual nationals, an unseemly practice that seems to be based on the assumption those players are not as patriotic or committed to the cause as players who are “more” American. But those critics also forget that there was a time when Landon Donovan’s commitment to the U.S. was questioned and years ago many criticized Clint Dempsey’s work rate when representing his country.Examining the volatile nature of U.S. fans’ opinions, one can also recall an era when many thought Michael Bradley—now the team captain—was only on the team because his dad was the coach.
So, if not Klinsmann’s fault, why did the U.S. lose in the Gold Cup?
First is the inherent luck involved in any one-off competition. Jamaica only needed to have one good night, coupled with a lucky goal, a fluky call, a brilliant free kick, and a few missed U.S. chances for the upset.
Mattocks’ goal to open the scoring was as much about luck as it was skill, and Giles Barnes’ terrific free kick goal on Jamaica’s second tally only came courtesy of a rarely called handball. (Guzan was judged to have extended his arm outside the area as he threw the ball back into play moments before.)
It’s also worth remembering that the semifinal loss to Jamaica was the best game the U.S. played in the tournament, style-wise, and Aron Johannsson missed a wide-open chance to tie the game in the 50th minute. Had that miss come in the 91st minute of play—like Chris Wondolowski’s chance against Belgium—Johannsson would be the goat, not Klinsmann.
Lastly, Klinsmann’s Gold Cup roster choices were heavily limited due to injuries. In addition to missing Jones, Birnbaum, and Shea, the U.S. was without Wil Trapp, Danny Williams, and Jordan Morris while Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya were clearly not at full strength having returned to action during the tournament itself.
All of this said, there are valid criticisms of Klinsmann. His lack of accepting (at least publicly) responsibility for the team’s failures is troublesome, as are his frequent—and sometimes factually incorrect—critiques of Major League Soccer.
Klinsmann also seems to have a lack of forethought, not seeing how a decision or statement today will affect his team in the future. He drives some fans—and even players—mad by playing them out of position and often confounds the media by constantly contradicting himself.
When he took the job in 2011, Klinsmann also promised a more proactive style of play, something that has been apparent only in fits and starts. Unbelievably, the U.S. was outshot in the group stage of the 2015 Gold Cup while competing against CONCACAF minnows. Still, it’s hard to believe anyone could argue with a straight face that the U.S. is less proactive now than it was under Bradley.
As it stands now, the U.S. is in the exact same position it would have been had it won on Wednesday—it needs to beat Mexico to secure a position in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Yes, it would have been easier to get the job done Sunday in the Gold Cup, but the U.S. still has a chance to do so on October 9 in the Rose Bowl.
In the meantime, U.S. fans need to be a little more patient and a lot less fickle.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.