The United States Soccer Federation fired Jurgen Klinsmann Monday from his position as the head coach of the United States Men’s National Team in the wake of a humiliating 4-0 loss at Costa Rica last Tuesday in San Jose, and named Bruce Arena as its new manager yesterday until the end of the 2018 World Cup.
For Klinsmann, the writing had been on the wall for some time. It was unacceptable to lose the first two matches in the Hex, an unprecedented run in the history of US Soccer.
Klinsmann took over in July of 2011, and had some notable highs with the team. He won the 2013 Gold Cup and reeled off a 12-game winning streak. He qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and advanced out of a “group of death” with Ghana, Portugal and Germany and took Belgium to extra time in the Round of 16. His .643 winning percentage is the second-highest all time in USMNT history.
For a period of time, it looked like Klinsmann was going to deliver on all the promises he made when he came in, and the USA looked destined to make the leap into the next tier of world soccer powers. Unfortunately, the team’s performance fell off in 2015 after it finished fourth in the Gold Cup with an abysmal 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the semifinals. In a Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico in October that year, Klinsmann also fell in a 3-2 thriller.
In 2016, it seemed like Klinsmann had regained his job security with run to the semifinals of the Copa America Centenario on American soil, but the run may well have been a product of a good draw more than anything else. Klinsmann sealed his fate in the opening two matches of the second round of 2018 World Cup Qualifying, losing 2-1 to Mexico in Columbus and then 4-0 to Costa Rica. Left in last place of the Hex, there was no choice but to fire the German.
Klinsmann’s results over time showed the USA’s inability to evolve, and there are a few reasons for that. It solely starts with Klinsmann’s utter tactical deficiencies as a manager, and that is entirely plausible given mastermind Jogi Löw was in charge of the tactics of the German national team in 2006, and not Klinsmann. Klinsmann never mastered the tactics of a big match and it was glaringly on display in his use a of a 3-5-2 against Mexico in the Hex.
Another Klinsmann ‘special’ so to put it, was to play players out of position which proved to be one of his more frustrating habits. This included playing Matt Besler at left back, Fabian Johnson as an outside midfielder, Alejandro Bedoya as a right midfielder, and DeAndre Yedlin as a right winger. Besler’s incorrect deployment came in the recent Mexico match and handicapped the US.
Klinsmann never quite had unilateral support from the entire fan base and his players from the start, and while not all of it was his fault, he didn’t work at all to reshape the image of himself as an increasingly divisive figure. Not including Landon Donovan on his 2014 World Cup squad seems perfectly normal in retrospect but looks like a move that someone who is intentionally trying to ruffle feathers makes.
In any case, Klinsmann disappointed far too often than he delivered and now leaves the USA at a crossroads before the Hex resumes in March of 2017.
Bruce Arena now is retaking the job and leaving the LA Galaxy. Arena holds the distinction of the winningest manager in US history after his strong stint from 1998 to 2006.
Going forward, Arena’s immediate goal is to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and he should be able to do so with ease, especially with two fixtures each against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago left. He will need to guide the US to a successful showing at the 2018 World Cup which includes making it to the knockout round at a minimum and hopefully advancing to the quarterfinals.
Arena is a much more practical manager than Klinsmann and uses tactics suited to the strength of his sides in a deliberate, pragmatic style. It won’t be inventive or evolutionary, but the USA should take care of business when it needs to and stop beating itself. In big games, Arena will assume the role of underdog and play defensively.
Arena brings little to none of the ambition and grandeur of the ideological football that Klinsmann wanted. Arena won’t hide what Klinsmann tried to gloss over: the relative lack of talent in the USA player pool and ability to play such stylish football. Most fans want their nation to play like a big team and to sweep opponents off their feet, but the country needs to fully usher in its new generation first. Until then, Arena will make do and keep the USA afloat through 2018.
For Philadelphia Union fans, Arena’s hiring is a plus, because of his MLS background, having coached the LA Galaxy since 2006. In his press conference, Arena expressed his desire to give more MLS players a chance in the squad, and he plans to name a January training camp roster exclusively of domestic based players.
Alejandro Bedoya should feel even better about his decision to come to MLS and MLS Rookie of the Year contender Keegan Roseberry should expect a call-up should his form continue for another year. Bedoya could be in a little bit of a pickle, because it seemed as if he was one of Klinsmann’s go-to guys in every roster. Bedoya absolutely has the talent to remain a fixture on the squad, but he will face a difficult battle to prove his worth to the new manager.
The hiring of Arena is not a step backwards for the USMNT, but it will delay the advent of the Americans rising through the ranks of world soccer. Arena is a manager who needs to get results, and he has the exact disposition to do so.