In many ways, Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States Men’s National Team were destined to find each other. The United States and Klinsmann were like two friends that always fancied each other but were too shy to take the plunge.
Despite being one of Germany’s footballing heroes of the 1980s and 1990s, when Klinsmann retired from the game in 1998 it wasn’t to his native Stuttgart, but instead the sunny beaches of California. He set up a consulting firm called SoccerSolutions, where he analyzed the way American sports teams evaluated player performance and fitness.
Even during his controversial but highly successful stint as head coach of Die Mannschaft, Klinsmann was criticized at home for being “too American” in his reliance on psychology and non-German coaching experts. Der Spiegel even called him a “Glorified American cheerleader.”
After he stepped down from the Germany job, it was rumored that Klinsmann had interviewed for the vacant United States job. Salary demands and Klinsmann’s desire for greater control over the program were what stalled a deal. It wasn’t the right time, but the interest was present in both parties.
After his short and unsuccessful run as Bayern Munich boss in 2009, Klinsmann returned to his home in the United States. It was after his return that the subtle and harmless flirtations became more serious. Klinsmann took a job consulting for Toronto FC in Major League Soccer. It was one more step towards the inevitable.
Through Klinsmann’s career as a coach and a consultant, he was preaching and practicing the things American soccer was crying out for; a modern footballing identity based on progressive approaches. Until this point, the United States identity was that of the pragmatic, scrappy underdog that outworked opponents to victory. That worked regionally, but as everything Americans do there was ambition for more.
Klinsmann was preaching a doctrine of attacking, proactive, and modern soccer that the United States had rarely displayed, but always wanted. Here was that American football savior, living in the United States, buying into American ideals of ambition, growth, and to never settle with what you have.
Finally, in July 2011, after years of flirtation and admiration, the two friends took the plunge. They went all in. It was time to stop ignoring the obvious.
The hype and anticipation for what lied ahead were incredible in American soccer communities. They had landed Klinsmann and his promises of dynamic, attacking soccer.
“It has to be our goal to develop a style in which Americans will recognize themselves. They have to be in front of the television and say, ‘Yes, that’s my team’”, said Klinsmann.
In terms of identity, Klinsmann saw the bigger picture. He understood American culture and values. “Americans are proactive. You want to be world leaders in everything you do. So, on the field, you shouldn’t just sit back and wait.”
But not only did Klinsmann promise to change and improve the play on the field but the entire set up of soccer in the United States. He was asked by the federation to rewrite U.S. Soccer’s mission statement, instruction manual, and game plan. Klinsmann became more than the face of American soccer. He was American soccer.
One of Jurgen Klinsmann’s requirements for his American team was to get them playing more often and against higher competition. Klinsmann was determined to see his team playing against opposition from outside of the region.
In his first six months in charge, the United States played matches against teams from South America, Europe, and Central America. These included regional rivals Mexico and Costa Rica, European powers France and Belgium, and quality South American outfit, Ecuador.
Klinsmann used his connections to secure friendly matches with Germany, Brazil, Colombia, the Netherlands, and Portugal, and many other quality sides from across the globe during his time in charge.
His reasoning was simple; if you wanted to be the best, you had to play the best. He was continually challenging the group with difficult circumstances and tough opponents. A January trip to Chile? Bring it on. Friendlies against Germany and the Netherlands in the same week? Why not. The results of those friendlies didn’t even matter. He was molding his squad for what did though.
You can play whoever you want in friendlies, those results don’t matter. For the United States, three things matter. Matches against Mexico, winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and performance at the World Cup.
Klinsmann had a terrific record against Mexico. His first match in charge of the United States came in a 1-1 draw against El Tri in Philadelphia. The United States saw historic results in Mexico while under Klinsmann’s leadership as well.
An August 2012 friendly at Mexico’s famed Estadio Azteca saw the United States pull off a historic 1-0 win. It was the first time an American team had gone to Azteca and not lost the match. They followed this up with a 0-0 draw in World Cup Qualifying the following March. It was the first point the United States had taken from Mexico in World Cup Qualifying on Mexican soil.
Klinsmann finished with a 3-3-2 result against Mexico, but losses in his final two matches against them, in the 2015 Gold Cup and 2018 World Cup qualifying, spelled the beginning of the end of his tenure.
He got two shots at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. The United States dominated the 2013 tournament, winning all three group stages matches by an aggregate score of 11-2. They then rolled through the knockout rounds beating El Salvador and Honduras by an aggregate score of 8-2.
The final was a cagy affair against a Panama team that defeated Mexico twice to reach the final. A Brek Shea goal in the 69th minute secured the victory for the Americans, their first Gold Cup triumph since 2007.
This was what was expected of the Americans. A rollicking display of superiority against their regional rivals.
The 2015 Gold Cup campaign was not.
The United States topped their group with two wins and a draw and got lucky that Mexico placed second in their group. This meant that the two countries wouldn’t have to face each other in the knockout rounds until the final, assuming they both made it that far.
Mexico did, the United States did not.
After a 6-0 hammering of geopolitical enemies Cuba, the United States was shocked by Jamaica in the semifinals, 2-1. Unable to get excited about a third-place match, the United States lost on penalties to Panama. Meanwhile, the next day Mexico trounced Jamaica 3-1 in the final to win the Gold Cup.
It was an embarrassing display for the Americans and the dissenters began to sharpen their pitchforks.
Despite a tournament that would have earned any other American head coach the sack, Klinsmann had banked a sizeable amount of credit in the previous years, especially from the World Cup a year earlier.
Klinsmann took control of the United States in 2011, as the qualification for the 2014 World Cup was about to begin.
The United States dominated the CONCACAF qualification. After finishing first in their group in the initial round of qualifying, the United States topped CONCACAF’s hexagonal final round of qualifying known as “The Hex.” They finished the final round with a 7-1-2 record and a +7 goal differential.
Conversely, rivals Mexico finished fourth in qualifying and were forced into a playoff with a team from the Oceanic Confederation to qualify for the tournament.
Easy qualification for the World Cup and a triumph at the 2013 Gold Cup earned Klinsmann a new contract and an additional job title.
In a decision that came as a surprise to many who follow American soccer, Klinsmann was given an extension through 2018 and the additional title and responsibilities of technical director for the United States Soccer Federation.
While the positive results were undeniable, the German had yet to take the big test, the World Cup. Tying Klinsmann up for an additional World Cup cycle and giving him more responsibility was a gamble.
That big test got a lot harder once the draw was announced. The United States was drawn into the tournaments “Group of Death.” They were grouped with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Ghana, who had beaten the United States in the previous two tournaments, and Klinsmann’s native Die Mannschaft, Germany.
“It is one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw,” Klinsmann said. “It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger but that is what the World Cup is all about.”
As if having two of the world’s top 3 ranked teams in your group wasn’t bad enough, the United States would be forced into a challenging travel schedule and a match in Manaus, a city so remote in the Amazon jungle that it’s only accessible by plane.
“We discussed before the draw that there could be some difficult schedules and we hit the worst of the worst. Every coach said, ‘Anything but Manaus’ and we got Manaus.”
Klinsmann would have to earn his money the hardest way possible. Failing to get out of the group stage after years of anticipation would be incredibly deflating to the whole Klinsmann experiment.
Incredibly, the United States advanced out of the group with a win over Ghana, a draw with Portugal, and a close loss to Germany. The Americans would face the upstart Belgian side led by Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku.
The match was one of attrition. Far removed from the promise of dynamic attacking football that Klinsmann promised, the United States was battered from the opening whistle and forced to rely on hitting Belgium on the break.
Belgium dominated the match and peppered Tim Howard’s goal, but the American keeper refused to be beaten. Howard’s performance during the match went viral, prompting the trending hashtag #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave, and having briefly led to the occupation on his Wikipedia page to be changed to “U.S. Secretary of Defense.”
Eventually, the dam broke and in extra-time, the Belgians scored twice before the Americans pulled one back before the final whistle.
The results were good. They made it out of the “group of death” and played valiantly against a quality European opponent. However, the rumblings of discontent began. This wasn’t the team Klinsmann promised. It looked a lot like the American teams of the past, just with better parts.
That refrain would continue into the next World Cup Qualifying cycle, the only thing that changed was the results. Sure, they won friendlies against the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Germany in 2015, but those were meaningless friendlies. The 2015 Gold Cup was a spectacular failure, and World Cup Qualifying was a struggle.
The United States finished top of their group in the initial round of qualifying, but by just 2 points. They had struggled to a draw against Trinidad and Tobago and lost to Guatemala. This was not the dominant performance the Americans had put on in the last cycle.
They began “the hex”, the final round of CONCACAF Qualification, with a 2-1 loss at home to Mexico and a 4-0 away defeat to Costa Rica. This left the United States at the bottom of the qualification table.
With the Americans struggling, at risk of not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, the federation pulled the plug on the Klinsmann experiment.
He was fired on November 21, 2016, and replaced by former USMNT boss Bruce Arena. It was an unceremonious end to a reign that began with so much promise and hope.
Jurgen Klinsmann left the program with a record of 55-16-27, for a win percentage of 56.12. That ranks him second behind only Bruce Arena for managers who have coached over 20 games with the United States.
Jurgen Klinsmann works in controversy. Every job he has taken, he has tried to shake things up and upset the status quo. It worked with Germany at the 2006 World Cup. His methods and philosophies drew critics at home, but he stuck to them and got results.
In his short spell in charge of Bayern Munich, he introduced changes at the club that included sports psychologists, yoga classes, and Buddha statues. In the notoriously rigid culture in Bavaria, these changes were not accepted, and when wins did not immediately follow, Klinsmann was let go after just a few months.
With the United States, he knew he had to shake things up, and he did from the start. The organization had gone stale and needed direction. Klinsmann knew the way forward for the United States. At least he thought he did. Either way, the people in charge of the federation were buying what Klinsmann was selling.
Almost immediately, Klinsmann started challenging the status quo of American soccer. He went after Major League Soccer. Klinsmann wasn’t interested in the development of the professional league in the United States. The best leagues in the world were in Europe, and that’s where his American players should be playing.
For Klinsmann, it was black and white. If you want to be the best, play at the highest level. There was no consideration given in the other direction. This rubbed many in American soccer the wrong way, including MLS commissioner Don Garber.
Klinsmann frequently jabbed MLS, citing its low level of competition, lack of a promotion/relegation system that would drive competitiveness, and even it’s calendar.
When American stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returned to North American from Europe ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann said, “it’s going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were” and indicated that playing in MLS would hurt the players’ careers.
Garber fired back saying “Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we’re trying to do,” Garber said. “Not only that, I think they’re wrong.”
Garber went on to add “To have a national team coach saying that signing with our league is not going to be food for their careers, and not good for their prospects with the national team, is incredibly damaging to our league.”
Both men have valid points, but opposite objectives. Klinsmann’s job was to grow the national team, and Garber’s was to grow the league. Still, it’s never a good look when two of the biggest power players in American soccer are feuding publicly. Garber would not be the only American power player Klinsmann would feud with.
Landon Donovan is a philosophically different man than Jurgen Klinsmann. He had played the majority of his career in Major League Soccer after starting his professional career in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen.
Donovan chose to return home instead of pursuing a career in Europe. He opted for the comfort and security of playing in his home state of California, first with the San Jose Earthquake and then with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, was always preaching the value of pushing outside of your comfort zone. He is a man who wouldn’t have understood Donovan’s decision to stay home and play in MLS. To Klinsmann, Donovan was good enough to be playing a top European league, so he should be.
While Klinsmann was a player who played for many teams in multiple countries in Europe always pushing himself for more, Donovan was a player who took a brief sabbatical from soccer in 2012 after suffering what he described as “burnout”
“I need time where I can just pause, and breathe and rest, let my body heal, let my mind refresh, and I think at that point, I’ll be excited to play again”, said Donovan when he announced his decision.
Knee injuries and his hiatus kept him from participating in much of the qualifiers leading up to the 2014 World Cup.
Donovan eventually did return to the national team and was included in the training camp leading up to roster selection for the World Cup in 2014. However, in a decision that shocked American soccer, the country’s greatest ever player has left off the roster.
Meanwhile, another controversy was brewing around Klinsmann at the same time. Using his connections and reputation in his native Germany, Klinsmann tapped into the dual-national talent pool. Because of the United States military presence in Germany since the end of World War II and its military installation at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, a few professional footballers were playing in Europe that could qualify to play for the United States due to their American servicemen fathers.
Five players, who were given the moniker of “Jurgen-Americans” by the press, became regulars in the United States squad in the lead up to the World Cup. The players were Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, and Julian Green.
It wasn’t just German-American’s he went after. Klinsmann continued the “Euroization” of the American team by bringing in Icelandic-American Aron Johannsson, and Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud. It’s possible without the influence of Klinsmann, these players may not have committed to the United States.
Klinsmann was comfortable challenging the system. He would argue it was necessary for the growth of the United States program, and it worked for a little while. Unfortunately for Klinsmann, the results stopped backing up the method used to get them.
Jurgen Klinsmann left behind a complicated legacy when he was fired in 2016. More than anything, it was a legacy of unfulfilled promises. Every coach promises wins when they are hired, but Klinsmann promised more.
Sure, Klinsmann did win. A Gold Cup and a successful World Cup run in 2014 were proof of that. Maybe that’s where Klinsmann’s run as the coach should have ended. Most national team head coaches stick around for a World Cup cycle before moving on. Blame for that falls at the feat of the USSF, not Klinsmann.
But Klinsmann is at fault for the failure to create the identity he promised.
Americans were sold on the idea of their country joining the ranks of the big boys of international football. They were sold on the idea of an American style to match their ambition. That wasn’t what they got.
Instead, American fans saw a team struggle over and over to create chances against weaker opponents. This was a generation of talent greater than the United States had ever produced before, yet the product on the field was not exactly revolutionary.
Maybe one of the reasons why was Klinsmann’s leadership style. Reports came out in the aftermath of his firing that he torpedoed the chemistry and culture of the national team.
The addition of the “Jurgen Americans” in place of veteran leaders like Brad Evans and Clarence Goodson were damaging to morale. Sure, they were talented players, but did they have the same levels of commitment to their country that these players had having spent their whole careers in the international set up from youth levels to the senior team?
There were even rumors of preferential treatment for the German-American players over the others.
Besides the locker room issues, there were recurring issues about whether or not Klinsmann is very tactically astute. These accusations first surfaced in Phillip Lahm’s book about Klinsmann’s time in charge of Bayern Munich and resurfaced in the latter stages of his tenure in charge of the United States.
Maybe Klinsmann is just the glorified “cheerleader” the German press accused him of being. Whether or not that’s true, he didn’t deliver, and it cost him his job.
Incredibly, Klinsmann still has confidence in his work as the U.S. boss.
In January 2020, Klinsmann claimed that he could have taken the U.S. to the final four of World Cup 2018.
“We were actually in a good place. It was progressing,” he said. “I said, I take that team in Russia into the final eight or even the final four. Because it was a building block, it was all laid out, there was a plan for it. But the plan got interrupted, it got even more interrupted when we didn’t qualify for Russia. And it’s sad.”
We’ll never know whether that’s true or not.
The United States watched that tournament from the same place Klinsmann did: on the couch, at home.
He may not have delivered on the American soccer revolution he promised, but he was always interesting.