When you look back at that most recent Honduras WC qualifier game. With about a month’s worth of additional hindsight. You see a relatively hot Honduran team (undefeated in their last 5 WCQ matches), playing in one of the loudest and largest venues in the CONCACAF, in front of a home crowd that had just been granted a national holiday for the sole purpose of viewing that game.
Winning that match on the road was always going to be a mammoth task for the United States, so the fact that they ultimately did not win shouldn’t signal the end of the world. We could easily rationalize the loss as yet another Jurgen Klinnsman era growing pain and simply move on like we have from the numerous other humbling soccer experiences we have suffered in Central America over the years. Well, we could have done that… except that Brian Straus’ latest article makes that nearly impossible. Paradise may be an exaggeration, but whatever state you think the USMNT currently exists in, it appears to be fraught with under the surface trouble.
Here are some of our thoughts on the reported “unrest” among Team USA and the worrying gap forming between Klinsmann and his players:
1. The Carlos Bocanegra blunder… Bocanegra’s already 33 years old, and he only plays in La Liga’s Segunda, but in the past year or so he’s been one of the most consistent players on the USA’s backline. Not to mention, he’s also the incumbent captain. Calling him in for the Honduras game in February, and then making a game day decision to leave him on the bench in favor of two centerbacks (Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez) who have never ever played along side each other was an extremely unsettling move before a major contest.
Klinsmann’s insistence on playing the players he thinks are the most individually talented rather than the ones that may be the best fit for the current lineup/situation actually simultaneously speaks to both his greatest strengths and weaknesses as a coach. He’s more than willing to play “talent” over “experience” for the good of long-term development, but he sometimes struggles to find the balance between the two when the short-term becomes increasingly important. Geoff Cameron plays for Stoke City in the EPL, Omar Gonzalez plays for the LA Galaxy and is easily the most physically imposing defender on the US roster. Both players are in their mid twenties. No doubt Klinsmann probably played the future anchor of the USMNT defense that day, but he did so for the first time in a hugely important match, and he also did so over the current team captain (a few hours before gametime). That left the Red, White and Blue all out of sorts.
2. What’s the difference between you and me?… Everyone always talks about Jurgen Klinsmann’s prestigious career as a player and coach, and how it probably plays a major role in his inability to relate to young US players who have simply never competed at those levels before. I agree that there’s probably a difference in initial mindset between him and his American pupils, but when you look at someone like Jose Mourinho, you don’t necessarily worry about his contrasting lack of pro playing experience in relation to his coaching capabilities. He seems readily able to communicate and ultimately manage his players without having had identical or even similar playing experiences to any of his superstar athletes.
To me, this is the biggest red flag brought up about Jurgen. If he’s really having trouble communicating his vision and actually leading his players, then he’s probably not suited to be a national team coach. Managing personalities and establishing clear, lucid strategies is important at every level of pro soccer, but on the national team it is particularly vital because you have so much less time to train/coach your players. You need to be as efficient as you are effective, and struggling to gain the trust and even understanding of the majority of your players over the one-to-two week preparation phases instead of actually training makes it impossible to win.
3. The German-born bias… Jermaine Jones, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Terence Boyd and Danny Williams were all born in Germany. All of them have seen a significant rise in their playing time and general importance on the American national team since Bob Bradley was replaced with Jurgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann (in case the subtly German name didn’t give it away) is indeed also from Germany. While the USMNT is coming off it’s best calendar year record to date (9-2-3), former national team coach Bruce Arenas has recently come out and said he doesn’t like the increased reliance on foreign-born players in the USA’s side (a thinly veiled attack on the Klinsmann regime). He claims it prevents us from truly proclaiming we’ve made any progress domestically as a soccer country, and in some ways, he has point.
In truth, the most worrying thing about this idea of Klinsmann giving German-American players preferential treatment, is the potential pressure it’s putting on the USMNT locker room. He’s already somewhat undermined the authority of the most experienced US national team player on the roster (Carlos Bocanegra) and now he’s leaving more openings for other American-born players to fully write him off as an unfair coach. I actually think the infusion of the German-born players has been good for the team, particularly the increased playing time for Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams (both young players who bring added dynamism to positions we desperately need it at), but those moves need to be inline with the way he treats all his players. He’s excited to get guys in that he believes have been overlooked in the past, now he needs to make sure he doesn’t reverse the situation and overlook others as he gives those players an “extended” shot.
With all the optimism that has been floating around Klinsmann and his start as the USA’s coach, Straus’ reports on the internal strife developing in the USMNT camp was kind of a major bomb drop Tuesday. Look forward to people’s thoughts below!