Jurgen Klinsmann might be at his happiest this morning, in the aftermath of his worst result as the United States Men’s National Team head coach. The vicious headlines calling for his firing, the withering critique of his strategy, the hard questions about the program’s progress – all of it could feel like a disaster in the making. For Klinsmann, it is something else: progress.
The United States’ performance Tuesday night in a 2-1 loss to Jamaica, which bounced it from the Gold Cup on their own soil, shows how far it has to go to be taken seriously on the international stage. The domestic reaction proves how far it has come.
The calls to can Klinsmann after one horrendous defeat are reactionary and unrealistic. They also teem with passion and represent America’s growing emotional connection to soccer. There is a boiling public debate over Klinsmann’s fitness to coach the national team, same as there would be if a South American or European squad suffered a stunning lapse.
Since he took over in 2011, Klinsmann has welcomed criticism as a sign of raised standards and greater sophistication among followers. When he reads a headline like SB Nation splashed across its site – “The USMNT Should Fire Jurgen Klinsmann” – he is getting what he wants. Public pressure to improve is always a step in improvement. By melting down after a poor performance, US Soccer fandom is growing up.
In the end, despite hiccups and Tuesday night’s embarrassing defeat, the notion of the U.S. Soccer Federation firing Klinsmann is far-fetched. Officials outwardly adore him. Recent victories over European powers Germany and Netherlands, albeit in friendlies, strengthened Klinsmann’s standing. Klinsmann received a long-term extension before last summer’s World Cup, an unheard of show of dedication. Klinsmann may feel heat if the U.S. struggles in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. For the moment, it seems, he is safe.
That doesn’t mean Klinsmann is perfect. He’s shown an inability to craft a coherent plan with his personnel, shifting lineups and placing players in situation conducive to struggle. The U.S. looked a step slow Tuesday night because Klinsmann utilized a suboptimal alignment.
Years ago, those subtleties would have been pointed out only by the most radical fans, and the discussion would have occurred on the fringes of the media. Now they are part of the mainstream sports conversation – the front page of ESPN.com Monday morning featured a story critical of Klinsmann’s clumsy handling of his lineup.
The loss to Jamaica stunted the U.S.’s on-field momentum, but the strong response to a Gold Cup result continued to boost the momentum of soccer in America’s sporting consciousness. Americans have bought more tickets than any other country in each of the past two World Cups, a startling figure even if many of those Americans rooted for other teams. This summer the Women’s National Team captivated the country, drew huge ratings and took over magazine covers.
There are still going to be hordes of sports fans who pay scant attention to any result that doesn’t happen every four years at the World Cup, if even that. That’s okay for soccer; plenty of sports fans think baseball is boring and couldn’t have picked San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner out of a lineup last October. That doesn’t prevent emotional, advanced baseball debate from percolating.
When Klinsmann took over, apathy was one of his enemies. He needed to create passion, even if it meant someday it might turn on him. Klinsmann is feeling the heat this morning, and if he’s being honest, it should feel good.
Steven Goff contributed to this article.