Four months (or less) also allows U.S. Soccer Federation officials to evaluate their high-energy, high-priced, mixed-results coach and, if they choose to make a change, begin the transition to new leadership.
In other words, if the USSF is thinking about dumping Klinsmann, it’s probably going to happen sooner rather than later.
The road to Russia 2018 is long and forgiving, with three CONCACAF teams assured of berths and another of a special playoff next fall. The Americans do have eight games left, but after defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica, the margin of error has narrowed, and additional missteps against Honduras and Panama in late March would exacerbate the situation and imperil the campaign.
The USSF is not an impetuous organization. Unlike many federations around the world, it doesn’t fire coaches on a whim. Since late 1998, Mexico has burned through 15; the USSF has had three. The USSF hasn’t changed coaches in the middle of a World Cup qualifying campaign since 1989.
It’s a different climate here: less pressure from the public, media and sponsors, as well as a broader philosophy that a national team coach’s responsibility is not only to win games but mold a sport that remains in the developmental stages.
Alarm bells don’t go off at U.S. Soccer House unless a World Cup berth is in jeopardy or progress has ground to a halt.
In Klinsmann’s case, it looks like both.
It wasn’t just the fact that the team lost these two matches; it was the manner in which it lost.
In the first game, in an Ohio stadium where the Americans had beaten their archrivals by four consecutive 2-0 scores, Klinsmann’s strange tactics failed miserably and required alterations before halftime. The team responded in the second half but didn’t get the job done, conceding a late goal to Mexico for a 2-1 final.
Four days later, after an adequate and scoreless 40 minutes in a Costa Rican city where they’ve never won, the Americans began committing a series of mistakes and imploded during one of the worst 10-minute stretches you’ll see this side of an under-9 game.
Beyond the physical errors, they committed mental errors and were disorganized, and perhaps most troubling, some didn’t seem to care. The body language was bad. That’s on the coach. If Klinsmann is not getting through to the players, if the players have quit on him, if the locker room is lost, this project is over.
In his five-plus years at the helm, Klinsmann has survived other calls for his job. The final round of the 2014 qualifying campaign began with a weak showing in Honduras. The 2015 Gold Cup ended with a semifinal defeat to Jamaica and a lifeless performance in the third-place match against Panama.
The current World Cup qualifying cycle stalled with a semifinal-round defeat to lowly Guatemala. This summer’s Copa America Centenario began with an ineffective effort against Colombia, improved greatly, then ended with a semifinal rout against Argentina and a third-place loss to the Colombians.
USSF President Sunil Gulati, who chased Klinsmann for years before hiring him in the summer of 2011, has stood by his man. It’s in part because Gulati, a Columbia University economics professor with a deep history in U.S. and international soccer, is a patient man. But it would be naive not to believe Gulati is also saving face here. Klinsmann’s failure would reflect poorly on him and on his decision to retain the German coach for a second World Cup cycle.
In global soccer, it’s unusual for coaches to stay on after one World Cup. They typically move on to another national team or accept a club job. The USSF, however, has stuck with the same figure beyond the four-year World Cup period over and over: Bruce Arena (1998-2006) coached in two World Cups, and Bob Bradley (2007-11) had one Cup and an additional year before Gulati pulled the plug.
Klinsmann received a contract extension — and the added role of technical director — seven months before the 2014 World Cup even began.
The longer a coach remains, the greater the threat of players tuning him out and the system growing stale. In Klinsmann’s case, there doesn’t seem to be a plan in place. Players have been tossed into abnormal positions, and as demonstrated against Mexico, the formation could change at any time.
If the USSF decides to hire a new coach, the first name that comes to mind is Arena, who, since leaving the U.S. post, has won three MLS Cups with the Los Angeles Galaxy. His contract expires this winter. Associates say he would, hypothetically, love another crack at the national team.
The 65-year-old would be a short-term fix, someone to recalibrate the roster, bring consistency and navigate CONCACAF’s turbulent waters, something he accomplished twice. After the 2018 World Cup, the theory goes, the USSF would probably start fresh again. It’s probably too late in the campaign to bring on someone inexperienced on the international stage or unfamiliar with the U.S. team.
“We don’t make any decisions right after games,” Gulati told reporters in Costa Rica. “We’ll think about what happened today and talk with Jurgen and look at the situation.”
The situation isn’t dire. But it isn’t good either.