Targeted Allocation: Jurgen Klinsmann is not the problem

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Jurgen Klinsmann's roles as coach and sporting director requires him to juggle conflicting objectives. It's complicated, as Graham Parker details.

It's hard to talk about the context Jurgen Klinsmann coaches in without talking about how well Jurgen Klinsmann coaches, but I'd like to try. 

I say this because Jurgen Klinsmann is not the problem.

He is a problem, and those who question his coaching have plenty of ammunition irrespective of the two very different Copa America outcomes so far. If you'd like to read a breakdown of that, I'm going to humbly suggest that there are many other Jurgen Klinsmann coaching analyses available, including on this website.

But Jurgen Klinsmann is not the problem. The problem is, crudely put, Jurgen Klinsmann was the best answer to the wrong question. And fun as it might be to treat him as a piñata, putting critical emphasis solely on Klinsmann's failings — the tinkering, the Donovan-ing, the deviation from campaign promises, etc. — only serves to distract from the fact that there are structural issues and challenges within U.S. sports institutions and culture that are beyond the ability of a single man to change. 

However, the appointment of Klinsmann as U.S. men's national team head coach and sporting director was predicated on the idea that those things could be changed by a man of Klinsmann's stature and personal traits. And if, as he has now hinted, Sunil Gulati were to act to replace Klinsmann as coach should results on the field continue to limp along, then a search for a similar archetype will ultimately lead to a similar set of problems.

An agent of change

The popular narrative of Klinsmann's appointment, extrapolated from his time with Germany, was that Gulati got a young and charismatic motivator capable of developing and then driving young players to play without fear, and to even transcend the history of their nation. And when that perception matched Klinsmann's initial mission statement about the type of attacking soccer his team would play, it only served to reinforce expectations among U.S. fans. 

But that was only part of the attraction of Klinsmann. His successful battles against institutional inertia in Germany, at both association and Bundesliga level, were also prominent in the decision to approach him to try and address a similar degree of concerns in the United States. And that's understandable. 

A quick historical aside for context: the globalization of soccer in this century, with the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich, in particular, prominent within the culture of that movement, has somewhat erased certain national histories and traditions within the game, including Germany's. Time was when watching the Germans at a major tournament was an exercise in finding out who'd been anointed as the new Beckenbauer - the ball-playing central cog in the team whose role, in German soccer at least, was as much ceremonial as tactical. Matthias Sammer was probably the last true anointed crown prince in this role (the fact that he's now sporting director of Bayern Munich is no less symbolic in relation to a certain tendency within German soccer). There was a German way. A German style that continued in splendid isolation regardless of developments elsewhere.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Brought in to be unorthodox. (Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports)

Even as a player, Klinsmann chafed against that orthodoxy. It's hard to remember how out of place, avant-garde even, the cosmopolitan Klinsmann appeared as a German player. But he could play. And the teams he played in won. So when the old guard's mandate was fatally eroded by an abysmal performance in Euro 2000, Klinsmann perfectly exemplified as much as offered an alternative mandate for change.

Again, much of the focus on Klinsmann's time in Germany now tends to be on whether or not his deputy was the true tactical genius behind the throne, and to what degree Klinsmann was a glorified cheerleader. But the fact that Klinsmann took on and forced through certain orthodoxies about conditioning and central player monitoring at both league and national association level, and in such a conservative environment, is just as telling a legacy of Klinsmann's personal toughness and vision. 

For Gulati, the possibility of that combination of sporting success and cultural transformation must have been extremely tantalizing. And once he framed the ideal of a U.S. leader in those terms, the field of likely candidates shrank to one.

Underestimating the task

But Klinsmann was not taking over in Germany, where he could change the demands on the players without worrying unduly about the supply of technically proficient youngsters, or where his reformer's zeal might put him in fierce battles for structural changes at the top, but could at least expect a significant change of direction for the national project to be at stake in those battles.

No, Klinsmann was taking over in the U.S., where development, as he told me in a 2014 interview, meant "connecting dots that hadn't been connected before." But the sheer mass of physical and ideological terrain between those dots (without even mentioning the children of American migrants scattered around Europe in particular) is enough of a logistical challenge for any head coach, let alone one who is also a technical director. 

And it wasn't just the scale of the country; it was the psyche of the country. In particular, the emphasis on college education as a rite of passage for professional athletes, and the immensely powerful system that supported that belief, would represent a significant obstacle to any pipeline intended to find and deliver international-grade soccer players from childhood to the first team.

Add in the internecine squabbling between domestic leagues tasked with protecting both private investor interests and their own status with U.S. Soccer, the existing hegemony of big sports in the U.S., and the scale of the task becomes apparent. Every previous U.S. coach had to work within these strictures, of course, but never had the emphasis on success been so consistently geared towards a long-term change in trajectory, as much as immediate results. 

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defined by change as much as victories. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

That's proven to be a mixed blessing for Klinsmann. Appointment to the dual role gave him the strongest possible mandate for change on all fronts, and the new man duly went about his job with characteristic zeal. But it also made him vulnerable to immediate results with the team at any given moment — or, paradoxically, vulnerable to complaints that he wasn't vulnerable enough. The latter has been the soundtrack of the past two years. 

No clear solution

To Klinsmann's credit, he didn't shirk from putting the team against the highest quality of opposition, with some notable success in friendlies. Though by the time the 2014 World Cup had passed, the collateral damage of the Donovan affair had begun to accrue, and Klinsmann's obsessive tinkering was greeted with much less popular indulgence than in the "Well, I guess we'll see at the World Cup" phase. 

Klinsmann's bifocal perspective, shaped by his twin roles, looks like a leader's sense of the big picture when results are going well, and a tone-deaf response to disaster when they aren't. The technical director's commitment to giving a chance to as many prospects as possible is laudable, the head coach's ability to get them to know where their fellow strangers are going to pop up on the field, less so. 

Last week, the Guardian ran a couple of stories that were striking about where we find ourselves. One, by Aaron Timms, was a polemic about Klinsmann's reign as “tactically chaotic” and “often embarrassing.” The other, by Les Carpenter, was a long, well-researched feature on how the U.S. Soccer development system, as currently constituted, is “only working for the white kids,” in the words of one of his interview subjects. A couple of days after Carpenter's piece, the news broke about the court ruling forbidding the U.S. women's national team from striking. Even Copa America's arrival served as much as a reminder of the corrupt administrations it emerged out of as a promise of great soccer. The fault lines U.S. Soccer currently contends with are considerable.

Thinking through the structural issues highlighted by the other stories made it hard to enjoy the Klinsmann critique in the same way. It was wonderfully written and accurate, if emphatic, in its criticisms of Klinsmann as coach, but reading it felt a little like reading a polemic about a U.S. president that took no account of the system they're president of, and the constitutional and logistic limits they operate under. I've had my own fun with Klinsmann in the past — he's exasperating and ripe for parody at times — but he's also the figurehead of a ship that appears to have been built in a landlocked country.

It's why Gulati's comments on Tuesday, before the Costa Rica game, were probably more significant than anything Klinsmann's team actually did on the field. They suggested that he was finally becoming aware of the limits of the cult of personality as a transformative force for every aspect of the U.S. game, and that he was contemplating what a post-Klinsmann U.S. Soccer setup would look like. 

If and when he acts on that, Gulati has some choices to make about the meaningful structures his next appointment will work within, and he will have to take a long hard look not just at who fits the bill but what the bill is. Whatever his faults, Klinsmann deserves a fairer assessment than ripping up the "Hope" poster he came in on.

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Graham Parker's column, Targeted Allocation, appears weekly on FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.