Jürgen Klinsmann’s approach as U.S. soccer coach may draw detractors, but he’s been successful

06/07/2014 7:36 PM

06/11/2014 12:45 PM

Jürgen Klinsmann never said his revolution would be peaceful.

When hired as coach of the U.S. national soccer team in 2011, Klinsmann talked of developing the game at the grassroots level, determining a national identity for the squad, and building on the success of a national team that had participated in the previous six World Cups.

“It’s come a long way, soccer in the United States,” Klinsmann said at his introductory news conference. “And I’m now getting this opportunity to move it further. To build on what already has been built. ...

“Certainly, having lived and played abroad in different countries, Italy, England, France, obviously Germany, I have my own ideas of how to move forward a program.”

Those ideas haven’t always landed on fertile ground. There was player discontent during World Cup qualifying, and most notably, Klinsmann made waves by excluding star midfielder Landon Donovan from the team Klinsmann ultimately took to Brazil.

Catching heat is nothing new for Klinsmann, who was nearly fired as manager of the German national team before the 2006 World Cup. He made waves after taking over as Germany’s coach in 2004, setting out to dismantle the old way of thinking in the German Football Federation, introducing new training methods and electing to bring in a new wave of younger players at the expense of the seasoned veterans, including goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, the hero of the 2002 World Cup.

Most notably, he did a lot of it from California.

The fact that the German coach chose to live in the United States with his American-born wife didn’t sit well in the Fatherland.

As the national team struggled to find its footing, the calls for Klinsmann’s head grew louder. One player who wasn’t chosen for the game against Italy called Klinsmann “underhanded and dishonest,” according to Der Spiegel.

One former player called for Klinsmann’s firing after a blowout defeat against Italy leading up to the 2006 World Cup started in Germany. There was talk of a plan to replace Klinsmann during the World Cup if Germany started poorly.

Klinsmann wasn’t swayed by any of it.

“I was basically doubted for the two years I was coach — and when we lost 4-1 to Italy in a friendly game three months before the 2006 World Cup, everybody wanted my blood,” Klinsmann recalled in an interview with the BBC four years later.

“They wanted the conservative approach again, not the revolution. But I kept on being positive, explaining that this was how I wanted us to play. I did not know if we would master it in time for the 2006 World Cup, but we would give it a shot.”

It worked out marvelously for Germany, which played an all-out, attacking style and finished third.

Just days after his team had won the hearts of an entire nation, Klinsmann stepped down. Almost immediately, a courtship started with the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The two sides couldn’t agree on a marriage, and Klinsmann spent most of the 2008-09 season coaching Bayern Munich in Germany. He was let go with five matches to play after a “disastrous” 16-7-6 record for free-spending Bayern.

After the United States lost in the 2011 Gold Cup final to Mexico, the U.S. federation hired Klinsmann.

His efforts to move things forward was met with resistance, just as it was in Germany.

After a lackluster showing in the third round of CONCACAF qualifying for this week’s World Cup (including a clunky 2-1 victory at Antigua and Barbuda in a must-win game), the United States lost its opener at Honduras in the final round. The critics emerged.

Some veteran players groused in a Sporting News story about not knowing the night before a match if they were going to play and how Klinsmann was using some unusual lineups.

It was eerily similar to the complaints heard in Germany. Klinsmann’s response remained the same.

“It’s not the same routine they were used to before we came on board,” he said in the Sporting News story. “And my job is to elevate the program, and I can’t do that by doing the exact same of what they did before me.

“I can only get to another level by bringing in new players and challenging the older players. By challenging them in every training session, by giving them uncertain feelings here and there — ‘Do I play or not play?’ — and so on.”

Klinsmann’s change did open the door for new players to make an impact on the national team, including Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler and Graham Zusi.

After the Sporting News story, the U.S. went 7-1-1 in qualifying and comfortably won the CONCACAF group. And it won the 2013 Gold Cup without many of its best players.

But Klinsmann wasn’t done making waves. He left Donovan, the best American player of all time, off the roster for the World Cup.

Was it the right move? Time will tell.

“Jurgen Klinsmann has a bold way of going about things,” ESPN commentator Ian Darke said in a conference call. “He’s made a huge decision to leave out Landon Donovan. He will either look like a genius about that or face a big inquest over it in about a month’s time.”

Given Klinsmann’s track record, it would be foolish to be against him.

To reach Pete Grathoff, send email to pgrathoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/pgrathoff

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