The USA men’s soccer team is always the focus of attention for American soccer fans. In the lead-up to this summer’s World Cup, which begins Thursday in Brazil, that attention has converged on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Klinsmann is the German who was sometimes accused of being “too American” while coaching in his home country and is now sometimes accused of being “too European” while coaching in the United States. He has created controversy virtually since the first day he took charge of the U.S. squad. And it was Klinsmann who rocked the soccer establishment by announcing that Landon Donovan, America’s best-ever player, would not be part of the 2014 World Cup squad.
Throughout his tenure, U.S. soccer fans have been left to wonder: Is he genius or madman? Savior or failure? Or maybe a little bit of both?
Klinsmann was hired in the summer of 2011, and since then he’s been accused of making important decisions on a whim, of focusing too much on fitness and too little on tactics and of having a bias toward players who were raised abroad. An article in the Sporting News, published in early 2013, painted a picture of him that suggested that he is little more than a crazed dictator, issuing ever-changing edicts from on high, while his confused team scrambles to put together decent performances.
Yet the U.S. qualified for the World Cup, and did so by dominating the final round of qualifying. The Americans won last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, while playing what was often described as their “B squad.” They beat Mexico in Mexico for the first time. They beat Italy for the first time. They even beat Germany to touch off a 13-game winning streak, the longest in American history.
That success earned Klinsmann a contract extension, and he’s set to coach the U.S. at least through the end of the 2018 World Cup. Yet many fans are ready to judge his tenure not on his past three years but on the next few weeks. Should the United States crash out of the World Cup before the knockout stage, the coach’s critics will claim vindication.
With this as kindling, it’s no surprise that his abrupt announcement of the U.S. squad for the World Cup touched off such a firestorm. Donovan, who some thought might be in the team’s starting lineup, was instead left at home. The snub prompted former national team coach Bruce Arena to sarcastically tell reporters, “If there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”
Meanwhile, 18-year-old Julian Green was selected, despite having played a grand total of two minutes for Bayern Munich, his club team, and 21 minutes for the U.S. national team. The squad also includes 24-year-old Timmy Chandler, who turned down invitations to join the national team several times in the past four years and hadn’t featured at all for the U.S. for more than 15 months.
That both Green and Chandler are half-German and half-American, and were raised in Germany, does not escape those who lambaste Klinsmann for a perceived bias toward players who were raised outside of the United States. More than a quarter of the World Cup squad has a similar non-American pedigree, including a majority of the team’s 25-and-under players.
Where do they stand?
An ever-changing squad has been a regular feature of Klinsmann’s tenure. The coach used 37 different players during World Cup qualifying, and even now he has yet to settle on a first-choice team. Even the team’s tactics seem in flux; after playing a 4-2-3-1 formation during most of World Cup qualifying, Klinsmann has switched to a more traditional 4-4-2 formation during the team’s World Cup warm-up matches.
His team is also unable to lean on experience, which is where the Donovan decision looms particularly large. Only six players on the team have previously been on a World Cup roster, while four have played fewer than 10 international games at the senior level. In the United States’ recent tuneup against Turkey, only four American starters were holdovers from 2010’s World Cup squad.
The four — forwards Jozy Altidore (21 international goals) and Clint Dempsey (36, the team’s leading scorer in Donovan’s absence), do-everything midfielder Michael Bradley and stalwart goalkeeper Tim Howard — will be at the core of the United States’ chances in this World Cup.
Not that the U.S. has an easy road once it arrives in Brazil. The team is placed in the so-called “Group of Death” this summer, a group that includes Germany and Portugal, the second- and third-ranked teams in the world. On top of those two powerhouses, the group includes Ghana, a team that defeated the U.S. in the past two World Cups.
Winning any of the three group games will be an achievement. Getting the results needed to finish in the top two of the group and move to the knockout round, the generally accepted bar for U.S. World Cup success, will require an exceptional performance. Klinsmann has said that it is “not possible” for the Americans to think about lifting the trophy in Brazil and seems focused only on making it past the group stage.
For the coach, any success, however small, would serve as a final vindication of his methods and plans, and set the United States on course for further improvement. Failure, though, would serve only to amplify the critics and accentuate the perceived chaos in the national team.
Given Klinsmann’s time so far in charge of the U.S. squad, perhaps continued upheaval is the only thing of which American fans can be certain.
Jon Marthaler is a Twin Cities-based writer and regular contributor to the SoccerCentric blog on startribune.com.