I Was Wrong About Klinsmann

A writer comes clean

Three weeks ago, I wrote in this space that Jurgen Klinsmann had to deliver now. Wins in friendlies and the Gold Cup and CONCACAF qualifiers are great (and, at this point, expected), but his job was to get the U.S. national team into the knockout rounds. I went further and said that he hadn’t been the best candidate for the job when he was hired in 2011 because his coaching resume was thin. Klinsmann’s main achievement was bringing a German team, playing at home, to the 2006 World Cup semifinals. But German teams have made the final four in nine out of 13 tournaments since the World Cup resumed after World War II in 1950. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

Was Klinsmann—outcoached in his biggest World Cup game by a stodgy old Italian who was as much of a museum-piece as his namesake (in a stadium where Germany was previously undefeated)—really the guy you wanted to hand the keys to? He wouldn’t have been my choice. I was all for a foreign coach, just not necessarily him. I was wrong.

There’s virtue in being wrong—as Kathryn Schulz has reminded us—and you could quibble with some of Klinsmann’s choices, both in the team selection (the obvious, much talked-about omission of Landon Donovan; the unusual admission of three over-30 World Cup first timers in Brad Davis, Chris Wondolowski, and Kyle Beckerman) and in his formations. But these are matters all coaches in this World Cup could be criticized for, and it has to be said that Klinsmann, even after yesterday’s slim 1–0 loss to Germany, made good, reasoned decisions, some of which provided almost instant results (read: John Anthony Brooks).

What’s more, Klinsmann’s players were well-prepared. You could tell they want to be there, especially compared to players on a few of Europe’s heavyweight sides, who appeared, mentally, to be in the Maldives. They didn’t use the heat of Manaus as an excuse. They never became cynical. The players—without flashy CVs and La Masia-like pedigrees—get a lot of the credit. When they made mistakes, and they made some bad ones, they moved on quickly. But blame, and credit, starts at the top, and Klinsmann’s plan was enough to get through the most thorny group of the World Cup. Most important, his team never played afraid; they played as if they belonged with the big kids. That’s psychological.

I still don’t believe he‘s some kind of seer into the American mind, that he wants to establish an “American” way of playing, whatever that might be. (American soccer, like America itself, is a great evolving experiment. We’ll know a little more in a couple of hundred years, give or take.) No, Klinsi is not a philosopher—and beware of such grandiose descriptions. He is a soccer coach, and he’s matured into quite a good one. He and his team earned a workmanlike win, draw, and, yes, a loss, 1–1–1. “We lost, but we advanced” is about as sweet a haiku as there is in soccer.

Klinsmann has already left something lasting. Whatever happens in the second round—and a win seems entirely possible now—he has made an invaluable contribution to the very slow but very steady rise of American soccer and the American soccer IQ. Again, I was wrong. My bad.