In the throes of a stubborn Washington summer, Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. national soccer team gathered for practice in smoldering conditions at American University this week ahead of Friday’s friendly against Peru.
He wasn’t talking about the weather.
Since finishing fourth in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Americans’ worst placement in 15 years, the temperature has been rising around the coach and players.
In the wake of the July shortfall, the match at RFK Stadium and Tuesday’s test against Brazil in Foxborough, Mass., are no longer carefree friendlies. Rather, they are critical tuneups for the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico next month at the Rose Bowl, a game that exists only because the Americans did not defend their Gold Cup title.
The past two tournament winners will vie for a berth in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, a dress rehearsal for the World Cup a year later.
For Klinsmann, passage will define success or failure in what is typically a quiet post-World Cup year – and either alleviate or aggravate discontent shared by many fans.
Accordingly, he has set a demanding tone at camp in Washington.
“We’re not looking at it as two friendlies on the way to whatever,” Klinsmann said. “It became a different dynamic after what happened in the Gold Cup. We can’t fix it afterwards; we have to win” against Mexico.
But this is about more than beating arch-nemesis Mexico and qualifying for a semi-important competition. At the start of a second four-year term, Klinsmann needs to steer the team back on course after only an adequate performance in the Gold Cup group stage, an upset loss to Jamaica in the semifinals and an uninspiring effort against Panama in the third-place match.
The 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle will begin in November. And although the United States, regardless of form, is almost certain to qualify from the middling CONCACAF region, many fans and pundits have questioned whether Klinsmann’s grand plan to lift the program to world-class status is working. Some this summer were calling for his dismissal.
The 51-year-old California resident takes much of the criticism in stride. After all, he did coach Germany, one of the most scrutinized sports teams on the planet, and survived a punishing term with Bundesliga titan Bayern Munich.
“I am having fun being measured by every game and judged by every game,” he said.
However, like soccer’s development in the United States, Klinsmann sees an evolution in soccer culture. “People understand what they are seeing and people don’t understand what they are seeing,” he said.
He cited the 2-1 defeat to Jamaica, decided by the Reggae Boyz’s two first-half goals, one of which came on a free kick awarded when goalkeeper Brad Guzan allegedly crossed the penalty area in making an outlet pass.
“It was definitely our best game, [but] there were these [officiating] calls,” Klinsmann said. “Everybody was saying, ‘Yeah, that’s true, it’s crazy.’ Three days later, it was a loss against Jamaica, two mistakes on two set pieces, and suddenly it was bad coaching. People see the result and they think, ‘That must have been really bad.’ ”
The increasing interest in the national team – and the social media platforms that accommodate it – has spawned greater public scrutiny of Klinsmann’s ways.
“It’s a good thing you have so much comments and opinions because it shows you that a lot more people care,” he said. “They care about the game, they care about the national team. They care about saying their opinion. Do they understand really what happened in the Gold Cup? Some of them absolutely do and a lot of people don’t. I take it, it’s not a big deal. But it also explains we have a long way to go to educate people on the game of soccer still in this country.”
Among the criticism leveled against Klinsmann is the perception that he favors foreign-based players over MLS candidates and that he would rather have national team candidates competing overseas. The current pool of 27 for the Peru and Brazil matches features 13 from Europe, nine from MLS and five from Mexico.
To lift MLS, some believe, Klinsmann should select more domestic-based players over those in, say, the German second tier.
“We try to analyze it individually, so we are not giving any advantage to a player over another player because of the league he is playing,” he said. “We analyze the environment he’s in and what he’s faced with every day, how he manages it every day — that also gives us a hint how much he can be prepared for the bigger stage on the international level.”
Klinsmann does not believe MLS club environments are up to European standards.
“When you play in the Premier League and Bundesliga, you are on your toes 24-7. If you make mistakes, you are going to hear from everybody. There are different levels of competition out there that I have to analyze, and I have to weigh in individually, ‘How good is that kid now?’
“Maybe someone [in Europe] doesn’t get in the starting 11, but I know he is playing a high level week in and week out within his team. Players here in MLS, they do not have competition in their teams. It’s just the way it is. They are not putting national team players or [high-salary] designated players on the bench” competing for starting jobs.
Over the years, Klinsmann’s relationship with MLS has run hot and cold. One area that has caused friction is MLS’s insistence in scheduling regular season games during the FIFA match calendar when national teams play. MLS has improved its scheduling, but conflicts remain, including this weekend.
“It’s a lose-lose,” Klinsmann said. “He plays for the club, he misses out on the national team, or he’s playing for us and missing out on the club. Players are in the middle and feel very uncomfortable. They want to be with both teams. They want to do their job for both. It’s getting better but we are not there yet where it ideally should be.”
As for the tasks at hand – two South American opponents as preparation for Mexico – Klinsmann is pushing for improvement in both performance and mentality.
“We would like to see a lot of personality coming out of the players,” he said. “We would like to see them understand the importance of momentum and that they understand the big moments. This is a big moment; it’s a playoff game. It’s one game.
“We want to see, in these next two games, them making a real clear statement that, ‘I belong in that game. I’m the one for the big moments.’ ”
I’ll have much more from my one-on-one interview with Klinsmann on the blog later today.
United States vs. Peru
Where: RFK Stadium.
Kickoff time: 7:30 p.m. ET.
TV, online: Fox Sports 1, UniMas, Univision Deportes, Fox Soccer Go, foxsoccer2go.com, univisiondeportes.com
Tickets sold: 27,000-plus through midday Thursday.