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With things looking black, USMNT sacks Klinsmann

Tuesday 22nd November 2016
The United States of America are doing their utmost to grow 'soccer' on all fronts. The USMNT are a key part of that, and after a poor run of results, their board decided to pull the trigger on Jürgen Klinsmann's time as manager. Now begins the quest to find a new leader to take their side forward.

Thursday will be America's Thanksgiving holiday. Unfortunately for Jürgen Klinsmann, its approach made last week absolutely the worst time for the United States Men's National Team coach to turn in a turkey, or worse, two.

Getting the tactics completely wrong against Mexico to concede an early goal, then his players forgetting how to defend a corner in the 89th minute to let in the winner after gamely fighting back in the opening match of the Hex, CONCACAF's six-team World Cup qualifying round robin.

The second was a completely abject defeat in Costa Rica four days later. The 4-0 scoreline shouted Klinsmann had lost the dressing room in a louder, more brutal voice than a Breitbart headline. With the German's neck thus on the chopping block, USSF President Sunil Gulati reluctantly swung the axe on Tuesday evening.

The timing couldn't have been better to make a change for more important reasons than giving pundits like yours truly the opportunity to make a few plays on words. That is just gravy. No, the deciding factors in making a switch now were as follows:

  1. There are still eight games remaining to earn one of three direct tickets to Russia, or climb to fourth, then play an Asian side in a similar boat for entry into the tournament.

  2. The squad doesn't play its next qualifier until March, giving the USSF time to hire a replacement.

  3. If a new man is brought in quickly, he will have nearly four months to implement changes.

By all accounts, Gulati and the board will act quickly. Outlets are already reporting they are finalising negotiations with former USMNT and current LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena to fill the void. He recently signed a two-year extension in Los Angeles, but is said to have an escape clause triggered by an offer to take charge of the national team.
After an eight-year tenure with the USMNT from 1998-2006, Arena is already the all-time best US coach in terms of both victories and winning percentage. Yet, a large portion of the fan base views him as a step back. The Galaxy coach has no other experience abroad, other than his previous stint with the USMNT. As well, while his LA club has been almost dynastic in its MLS success, he has largely relied on veteran players to get the job done. While his opposition was not interested in retaining Klinsmann, they did appreciate his ability to develop young talent, especially up front and on the flanks. To their minds, the ageing central midfield, which they anticipate Arena will keep in place needs to be restocked as well. Thus names like Jesse Marsch of New York Red Bulls, Jason Kreis of Orlando City, and the mad professor, Marcelo Bielsa, have been bandied about as more suitable successors to Klinsmann in comment fields.

Marsch and Kreis are as familiar with MLS-based American players as Arena. On top of that, they have a better record in trusting youth. The problem is they both have less international exposure than Arena. Which is to say they have none. Their philosophies may be more contemporary, but when faced with the challenge of climbing up the table from the bottom, it is not the time to experiment.

Bielsa certainly has the tactical nous to transform the squad. His mercurial nature is a red flag, however. Just ask Marseille. Or Lazio. The US hasn't the time to find yet another replacement if the skittish Argentine suddenly decides to bolt. Nor would there be time for the players to adjust to yet another foreign philosophy if Bielsa were to honour his commitment. As an American and a constant presence in MLS, Arena is a coach with whom virtually everyone in the squad, and on the fringes, is familiar. He speaks their language, and, with the exception of the German-born-and-raised players, understands their cultural roots.
Those players of German-American parentage, Jermaine Jones, Timothy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, et al, highlight both Klinsmann's strength and weakness as US coach. They are all excellent additions to the squad, without any doubt improving its quality. They have all done well, and completely understood Klinsmann's program. Even with the temperamental Jones, Klinsmann never had a problem.

On the other hand, he had fallen out with several US-based players. Landon Donovan and Tim Howard were punished for taking hiatuses. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, although conspicuously not Jones, were faulted for preferring moves stateside rather than extending their European careers. Bradley was asked to become a playmaker rather than the midfield engine, which is like entering a monster truck in the Indianapolis 500. Meanwhile, Benny Feilhaber, Sporting KC's legitimate playmaker, wasn't good enough.  Altidore, the American version of Emile Heskey, has been an automatic Klinsmann selection despite being roundly derided for his extremely low scoring rate. Finally, younger players were urged to cross the Atlantic at the earliest opportunity, even if it was to a lesser league.

Every coach has favourites for different reasons, and European football is inarguably a cut above the MLS. Even when a player signs with a club in Norway or the French second division, he's soaking up a football culture that doesn't exist at home. So bias and nationalism aren't the real issues here. Nor is it the manager's questionable tactics. It's communication. Klinsmann's mandate was to transform the US from a nation which plays soccer into a proper footballing power. To help the Americans cross that bridge, the German first had to come over to their side to lead the way. Klinsmann never seemed to understand America's soccer culture, despite seeing out his career in California and settling down there long before being hired. More than once, he courted trouble by rejecting American traditions and methods. He simply didn't relate. The squad fragmented as a result.

Arena may be a step back in terms of outdated tactics, but his experience in Los Angeles speaks to the divide in the USMNT squad. When your clubhouse features a small group of foreign millionaires, one introverted American star, and a severely underpaid, constantly rotating supporting cast, winning multiple championships requires extensive communications skills. He knows how to bring diverse players together to form a winning culture. At sixty-five, no one envisions Arena sticking around beyond Russia 2018, but he is the man for the moment.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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