A year ago, in my second post on this blog, I wrote about how important it would be for the U.S. that Jurgen Klinsmann would bring a winning pedigree to the national team. After seeing the team’s first ever victory in Mexico last night, at the Estadio Azteca, it seemed appropriate to revisit this piece–and my hopes for Klinsmann.
From 1988 until his retirement in 1998, Jurgen Klinsmann was one of the best strikers in the world. During those ten years, he won a number of accolades with club teams, but his real achievements came on the international stage. “The Golden Bomber” scored in each of the six major international tournaments he played in and became the first player in history to score at least three goals in three World Cups (’90, ’94, and ’98). And he won the two most prestigious championships any European soccer player can win: The World Cup, in 1990; and The European Championship, in 1996.
Klinsmann was a striker in the traditional sense of that word: When a goal scoring opportunity arose, he struck. To do this, he often employed a unique tactic: he ran in circles. I got to see Klinsmann play live in June of 1993, at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan, where “Unified” Germany (it had been West Germany that had won the 1990 World Cup) was playing England in the U.S. Cup. I was twelve then, and the one thing from that game that stands out to me is the way Klinsmann and his strike partner ran in circles at the top of the field while Germany built up its powerful and methodical attacks out of its backfield and midfield. Later I realized why Klinsmann did this. The constant movement made him hard to defend, and maintaining a dynamic state enabled him always to be ready to pounce on an opportunity—a passing lane, a through ball—and do what he did best: score goals.
The ability to anticipate an opportunity and then strike seems to be serving Klinsmann well as a coach. In 2004, the German Football Association hired Klinsmann—who had no previous coaching experience—to coach the German team, which had just had a dismal performance in the European Championship, where they failed to advance out of the group stage. In two years, he transformed an aging under-achieving team into a dynamic group of young and veteran players whose attack-oriented play at the 2006 World Cup attracted worldwide praise. The team made an exciting run at that World Cup, winning their group and advancing to the semifinals, where they lost in over-time to eventual champions, Italy.
Now, Klinsmann has struck again. On July 29, the US Soccer Federation hired him to coach the Men’s National Team. His hiring was not a surprise. Klinsmann has lived in California since his retirement in 1998, and the U.S. previously courted him for the head coaching position in 2006.
But Klinsmann takes over the USMNT at a time when it is struggling. Their performance in the 2010 World Cup—ties against England and Slovenia, a last-minute victory against Algeria, a loss to Ghana in the Round of 16—was a great disappointment. In this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the U.S. lost in group play to Panama and then lost the final 3-1 to its rival Mexico in Los Angeles. It seemed that a change in coaching was necessary
But Klinsmann’s hiring has been met with both excitement and trepidation. It’s exciting to see an accomplished international soccer player coach the U.S. Men’s team. And Klinsmann’s success with the German team proves he has the ability to make adjustments to a nation’s soccer program in order to yield results in professional international competition.
But the current USMNT has enough shortcomings that it seems no single coach could fix them. Most prominent are their unreliable defense, the lack of a consistent offensive threat, and no clear pool of young players and veterans who can form a competitive international team.
It’s also possible that the American team could lack the technical proficiency required to execute the type of aggressive, fast-paced attacking style of play Klinsmann implemented with the German team. Whatever issues lay in the German national program in 2004, it can be assumed that technical proficiency was not one of them. Germany has always been known for both its technical proficiency and tactical prowess. And a team’s tactical execution is limited or enabled by their technical ability. If the players can’t possess and pass the ball with efficiency and confidence, then the team won’t be able to lead any sort of attack, let alone a fast-pace assault of precise passing, penetrating forward runs, creative combination play, and accurate finishing.
There’s also the fact that Klinsmann’s coaching experience is better called a “stint” than a “career.” Besides the two years coaching Germany, Klinsmann’s only other coaching experience was with the elite German club Bayern Munich, where he was replaced before the season ended.
But it’s hard to underestimate the significance of Klinsmann’s impact on the German National Team. What he led in Germany was a revolution. Heading into the 2006 World Cup, many Germans were skeptical about the team. But in the World Cup, they won their group, with three victories on 8 goals for and 2 against. They beat Sweden 2-0 in the Round of 16 and Argentina on penalties in the quarterfinals, before the loss to Italy. After the loss, Klinsmann praised the team, and their positive attitude and victory in the 3rd place match galvanized support for the team—and for Klinsmann. According to the BBC, all 23 players on the German team and 90% of the German public wanted Klinsmann to remain as the coach. Even German legend Franz Beckenbauer, who won World Cups for Germany as both a player and coach and had previously been a critic of Klinsmann, wanted him to stay on as coach.
But just days after the World Cup ended, he resigned, saying: “After two years of putting in a lot of energy, I feel I lack the power and the strength to continue in the same way.”
That decision and Klinsmann’s statement might concern Americans. Klinsmann is a free spirit—literally running in circles in his own world, waiting to find the perfect moment to strike.
But U.S. Soccer Fans should be optimistic about Jurgen Klinsmann for one specific reason: he is a winner. For ten years, he was an integral player for a nation that expects to win every single international soccer match it plays. And Klinsmann won, as both a player and a coach. He has a record of international success that no American—player or coach—can match. That championship pedigree makes him an ideal candidate to steer US Soccer in a new direction.
Because if there’s one thing that the USMNT needs right now—more than a change in tactics or personnel—it’s a change in attitude and perspective. They need to start playing like they expect to win. In the last two World Cups, the U.S. has played like an also-ran. For fans, their underachievements have been disappointing, infuriating, and even embarrassing.
Hopefully—more than any tactical revolution or coaching appointments—Klinsmann will infuse U.S. Soccer with the mentality of a champion. And once the team believes they can be a champion, maybe they will start to play like one.