In 1998, the U.S. national team finished dead last in the World Cup, losing all three group stage games to Yugoslavia, Iran and Germany. In the USA’s game against Germany, a 2-0 loss, the second goal was scored by a 33-year-old forward named Jurgen Klinsmann.
By that time, Klinsmann was revered in his native land. The striker had been a big part of Germany’s triumphs at the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship.
In 1998, the same year he scored against the United States in the World Cup, Klinsmann moved to Southern California, where he lived during the offseason following his marriage to an American woman. In 2006, he coached Germany to the semifinal at the World Cup.
It was probably inevitable that Klinsmann, with his unique skill set, would draw the attention of U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati. Klinsmann had experience playing and coaching at the highest level in Europe, and a familiarity with the American soccer landscape. It was just what Gulati wanted.
After a five-year courting period, Gulati finally got his man in the summer of 2011, as Klinsmann was named U.S. national team head coach.
Just over two years later — after qualifying for the World Cup but before actually playing in it — U.S. Soccer further cast its lot with the German coach, signing him to a contract extension through 2018 and adding the title of technical director.
It’s clear the U.S. Soccer Federation has fallen under Klinsmann’s spell. However, up to this point, the coach merely has his squad where it’s supposed to be. In order to justify his mandate — and his $2.5 million salary — the U.S. must produce, and do so at a World Cup.
In a stunning demonstration of the power he wields, Klinsmann unceremoniously axed all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan from his World Cup team last month, and did so reportedly without notifying anybody beforehand.
It was the kind of bold move he was brought in to make, but it could backfire spectacularly.
“We coaches felt that the guys we chose are a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas,” Klinsmann said in a news conference after Donovan was cut.
One of those players, apparently, was Julian Green, a 19-year-old prodigy with almost no professional first-team experience.
Green is a perfect encapsulation of Klinsmann’s mandate. The youngster could have played for Germany, but the U.S. coach persuaded him to represent the nation of his birth. Green is not the player Donovan is now, but in the future, he could be even better.
And ultimately, Klinsmann is in place to secure the USA’s soccer future. His oversight of the entire program and contract extension demonstrate as much.
But in international soccer, it’s still all about the World Cup. Klinsmann’s future starts on Monday against Ghana.