America at Large: Klinsmann’s dream ends in nightmare

US soccer failed to attain the self identity it craves under former German manager

One year after taking over the United States national team, Jürgen Klinsmann invited Donnie Moore to address the squad before a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.

Wearing a rather dated shell suit, the self-styled motivational speaker and Christian evangelist went through an often bizarre routine. It included ripping telephone directories in two, and breaking baseball bats over his thigh while spouting trite cliches about goals and dreams.

Then, after demanding encouragement from a room full of bemused professional soccer players, Moore performed his trademark move, rolling a frying pan up “like a burrito”.

Following emphatic defeats to Mexico (their biggest rival) and Costa Rica (an embarrassing 4-0) in the first two games of qualifying earlier this month, Klinsmann was fired last Monday. But, for some, that ridiculous Moore cameo early in his reign first stoked suspicion he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.


Having come into the job trailing the nagging doubt that Joachim Löw was the real brains of the operation when Klinsmann managed Germany, the achievements of both men since have done very little to diminish that belief . . . If anything, it has merely gained credence over time.

A few months back, Klinsmann was mentioned as a potential replacement for Roy Hodgson with England, a testament to the lingering legacy of his illustrious playing career and the historic condescension of that country's media towards the game here.

Serious feat

Aside from his stint working in tandem with Löw, that the former Spurs man guided the USA to the second round of the World Cup was regarded as a serious feat and an indication of genuine managerial ability. It shouldn't have been. Reaching the last 16 is the very minimum expectation of any American team on the biggest stage now. Bob Bradley did it before him and Bruce Arena got them to the quarter-finals back in 2002.

Sure, Klinsmann's side emerged from a so-called Group of Death, a feat tempered somewhat by the realisation they were seriously outplayed in three of their four games and only some preternatural heroics by Tim Howard prevented an embarrassing rout against Belgium.

Those who still argue the German somehow gave value for money, earning $20 million over the course of his five years in charge, are the same people who bought into his ongoing spiel about how he was going to introduce an American style of play. Half a decade later, he hadn’t made any inroads on that score.

In many ways, Klinsmann benefitted from American soccer being traditionally in thrall to foreigners bearing accents and pedigrees, real or imagined. This cultural weakness has allowed generation of spoofers from many nations, but most pointedly Britain, to make easy money out of coaching here while simultaneously retarding the country’s youth development.

This tendency is also writ large in Major League Soccer’s continued and increasingly perverse persistence with paying over the odds to superannuated European stars (Schweinsteiger for Chicago!), a tactic that has long since reached the point of diminishing returns.

In his own case, Klinsmann merely had to speak fluently into the microphone to allay well-founded fears that his ploy of attempting untried tactical formations with players starting out of position in key games was all part of some grand scheme. Not to mention using this same bluffing to good effect when throwing players under the bus after shock defeats, his preferred method for diverting blame.

Exciting prospect

Witness his convoluted way of trying to pin the recent Mexican defeat on his brave attempt to accommodate Borussia Dortmund's 18-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic, arguably the country's most exciting prospect ever.

“Soccer is emotional and a lot of people make conclusions without knowing anything about the inside of the team or the sport,” said Klinsmann last weekend. “There is a lot of talk from people who don’t understand soccer or the team.”

Even after decades living in California and five years working for the USSF, Klinsmann’s response to indigenous criticism reeked of the patronizing attitude Europeans have always evinced towards Americans talking about the game.

He seemed to forget this is a nation where a rump of fans feast on 50-plus club matches from all over the world every weekend and possess in-depth knowledge. Two generations have come of age since the New York Cosmos owner infamously urged his coach to “Get the Kraut (Franz Beckenbauer) up front – he’s paid too much to defend.”

As welcome and overdue as Klinsmann’s departure was, Tuesday’s rapid-fire appointment of the erstwhile Los Angeles Galaxy’s Bruce Arena as his successor is not without its problems.

A gruff character but a more experienced and better manager now than when he came within a whisker of reaching a World Cup semi-final, the most immediate issue may be that Arena has railed against the squad featuring a regular smattering of second-generation players, many born to American servicemen and women living in Germany.

“Players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans,” he said back in 2013. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

That sort of old school nativism is hardly what the most diverse sport in the country needs, especially in the current toxic political climate. Arena may have some explaining to do then or some frying pans to roll up.

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New York