"Our approach for putting together the roster for this summer's Gold Cup, which is very, very important to us, is obviously to do everything possible to win this competition."
— Jurgen Klinsmann, before this year's Gold Cup, in an interview with ussocer.com
By any accepted standard, that's what the U.S. men's national team is today, after losing 2-1 to Jamaica in the semifinals of the Gold Cup -- complete, unremitting disaster.
How disastrous? This is the first time the United States has been eliminated by any Concacaf team apart from Mexico. The last time they lost to any Caribbean team on American soil, man had yet to set foot on the moon. It's the first time they've lost to a Caribbean team in the Gold Cup. Most importantly, it's the second time the United States has lost to Jamaica. The first time came in 2012, at Kingston, under Klinsmann.
By any appreciable standard, the USMNT has regressed significantly. This isn't one bad game. This isn't one bad tournament. Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team on July of 2011, after another catastrophic loss in the Gold Cup. In the past four years, more often than not, the United States has played the kind of soccer that Klinsmann promised to dispose with as coach.
When hired in July of 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann specifically promised to instill a proactive, possession-based style that allows the U.S. men's national team to be able to go toe-to-toe with soccer's heavyweights. American fans grew weary of seeing the U.S. sitting back in defence, and counter-attacking; switching things up would inevitably let the U.S. take the "next step" in our evolution as a "soccer country".
The end point of that evolution? Why, winning the World Cup, of course.
[Let's leave aside the breath-taking arrogance and unreality of that statement for greater discussion later. It is arrogant, and it is unreal to the point of fantasy, but I will say that if America will not be a "soccer country" until it has won a World Cup, then America will never be a soccer country.
We cannot place the entirety of our self-identification as a "soccer country" on winning a tournament, with all the random elements of chance contained within. The Netherlands are an archetypal "soccer country", pioneering the kind of soccer America aspires to play — yet they have never won a World Cup, and have one solitary European title to their credit; shall we revoke their soccer credentials, then? We're not.]
How we are losing is perhaps more alarming than our losses. It would be one thing if we could identify elements of the proactive, possession-based style Klinsmann promised in those losses, and those elements were becoming more and more pronounced, even as the losses mount. Progress, then we could say, is being made! The losses sting, but at least we are taking the next step in that evolution. We can see, if not the end, then at least the half-way point, secure in confidence that we are traveling in the right, as we are given to see the light.
But all we see are flickers; and those embers, brightly though they may glow, are quickly doused. We careen madly from formation to formation and tactic to tactic; in the last three years, the U.S. has gone from a 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 diamond and now to a 3-5-2; surely the 3-6-1 cannot be far off, and always, back to the trusted 4-4-2 when all else fails, whether that's from circumstance or missing a player due to injury. And in all that mad capering, America's playing style has regressed significantly, with our World Cup performance being signal in that regression, and our performance afterwards serving as punctuation to that statement.
And it's all been crowned with last night's dung-heap of a loss.
In our desperate desire for evolution, no matter the cost, we have lost something precious. In our search for the next step, we have destroyed that which made America's team ineffably American. I'm reminded of Spain's Vicente del Bosque's remarks after his Spain team lost to the U.S. 2-0 in the '09 Confederations Cup semifinals. That result was one of the greatest U.S. victories in the modern era, and it's worth taking del Bosque's remarks in that context.
"The US play with a lot of energy. They are good in attack and very fast. They don't spend a lot of time in midfield as they go straight for the goal. We were surprised by their play as a team. We tried to go down the wings because it was too tough for us through the middle. We created a lot of opportunities but we didn't have the final touch today and they came up with a lot of close saves."
That's clearly no longer the case. At one point last year, deep in the mire of a stretch that saw one American win in eight games, 14 of the 17 goals opponents scored against the U.S. came in the second half; nine came in the last ten minutes of the game. The USMNT was outscored 9-0 in the second half of its last five games. It went winless in five straight games for the first time since 2007. Throughout that stretch, Klinsmann fans were at pains to dismiss this dismal stretch as meaningless.
The real test, both they and Klinsmann said, would be the Gold Cup.
Now, that winless stretch was followed by a stretch this year in which the USMNT went 8-2-2, with wins against the Netherlands and Germany in back to back friendlies. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that. There were some other high points in that stretch, too.
Here's the thing, though: if the stretch where we were winless, and dire to boot, doesn't count, then why should we ascribe any meaning to the stretches where we win games? If losing in friendlies to Ireland's B-team and Colombia, and drawing Ecuador and Honduras doesn't matter, then why should beating the Dutch and the Germans in friendlies? You cannot have it both ways. Either they all matter, or they don't, but you can't just pick the results you like and toss out the rest.
Put that aside for now. If the real tests are tournaments like the Gold Cup and the World Cup, you'd expect the USMNT to hit its stride for those tourneys and deliver solid performances, at worst. That's not what's happened. Last year's World Cup saw the USMNT revert to its 1994 playing style: bunker down on defense, depend on your goalkeeper delivering a stellar performance, and hope for a lucky goal or two off a set piece, or maybe off a counterattack.
That was the game plan against Ghana. The game plan against Germany. The game plan against Belgium. That was manifestly the kind of soccer that Jurgen Klinsmann promised to get rid of. And it resulted in essentially the same result as 2010: an extra-time loss in the round of 16.
Maybe you think yesterday's loss was unlucky. But if you do, that ignores the evidence of a dismal group stage, in which the United States was, frankly, lucky to beat Honduras and freaking Haiti and barely managed a tie against Panama. If your counter-argument is the 6-0 annihilation of Cuba, that just proves my point: we've regressed to the point where beating a team that had seven players go missing is held as a point of celebration, rather than the foregone conclusion it should've been.
This Gold Cup team is heavy on the veterans, and it's as close to a USMNT A-team as you can get. This isn't a rebuilding team, and the names — Beckerman; Bradley; Altidore; Wondolowski; Bedoya — show that. It had 17 players from the World Cup squad — the most of any U.S. Gold Cup roster in a post-World Cup year, ever. 13 of those players played in the Gold Cup before; ten won it.
That is the team that lost to Jamaica tonight. In the Gold Cup semifinals, no less.
When Bob Bradley was fired, it was after an embarrassing loss to Mexico in the final. Klinsmann, somehow, managed to plumb depths we didn't know were there to be plumbed. The only way in which that's not the case is if you count the occasional friendly win against a European team as an actual achievement.
And if that's the case, then why wouldn't you count the losses just as much? What does it say about U.S. Soccer that despite the ample evidence on hand, it continues to employ Jurgen Klinsmann? A guy who not only sees nothing wrong with what happened last night, but thinks it was something worth praising.
Any self-respecting soccer federation would've turfed Klinsmann way before this; they certainly would be sacking him after this performance. No other federation has held their coach to the kind of low bar that U.S. Soccer has set for Jurgen Klinsmann. Let's be brutally honest: despite all of Klinsmann's words and protestations, his USMNT is demonstrably worse than Bob Bradley's and Bruce Arena's.
Don't believe me? In the six months prior to his firing, Bob Bradley went 4-4-2, with wins against Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Panama, and Canada, losses to Panama, Spain, Paraguay, and Mexico, and draws against Chile and Argentina. In the stretch after the 2010 World Cup, the USMNT lost to Brazil, tied Poland and Colombia, and beat South Africa. That makes for a record of 5-5-4.
What about Arena? The USMNT had a pretty horrid World Cup in 2006, and didn't play any games after it, but the run up was pretty good: six wins, two losses, and two draws. 2007 under Bradley was pretty sterling: 12 wins, five losses, and 1 draw. And obviously, under Arena in 2002, the USMNT had its best World Cup performance ever in the modern era: a trip to the quarterfinals, which they reached when they beat Mexico dos a cero in the round of 16, only to lose to Germany on a Torsten Frings handball.
Klinsmann is lost, and he is bereft of ideas, and so therefore now come the jeremiads. Where once he was effusive, full of bonhomie, now he sounds a dour, turgid, monotonous note, much like Berti Vogts with a California Deutsch accent. His players show up to camp unfit, and he accuses them of rank unprofessionality, but "it's fine." The fans and the media need to be "educated". On and on it goes on. There's never an acceptance of responsibility, never an acknowledgement of personal failure, even though by his own expectations, never mind those of his bosses' and the fans, he's failed to deliver; not just tonight, but over the past four years.
Real talk: if Jurgen Klinsmann was an American coach named George Baker, Sunil Gulati would've fired him long before tonight. When you really get down to it, the problem isn't really Jurgen Klinsmann, though. He's just the lucky beneficiary, and he knows it.
It's American soccer's persistent lack of confidence in itself, and its perennial belief that Europeans — and it's always Europeans, usually British, but always Europeans — always know best and most about soccer.
To which I say: Bullshit.
It's the worst kind of colonial mentality. Frantz Fanon, and he's not the only one — a guy by the name of Malcolm X had a lot to say about this, too — wrote about the colonial mentality. Basically, this is the acceptance by the colonized of the culture or doctrines of the colonizer as intrinsically more worthy or superior.
In soccer terms, Americans, as the colonized, consistently treat European soccer cultures and doctrines as innately better, worthier of support, and superior to American sporting cultures and doctrines.
Once you realize this, so many other things make so much sense it hurts: Promotion and relegation. The adoption of a "European schedule". Owen Coyle coaching the Dynamo.
It goes as far as the adoption of actual English accents among fans! Or calling rivalries derbies, or naming a team Real Salt Lake. On and on it goes, deeper and deeper, until we all inhabit a soccer upside down reality, in which a team has regressed from losing a World Cup quarterfinal against Germany despite being the better team, to losing a Gold Cup semifinal against a team it's only lost to twice in nearly a half-century, and fans are calling it progress.
All this, despite the fact that America has a far richer coaching culture and youth sports development culture than any other country on Earth. That's how deep the American colonial mentality in soccer goes. And it's always Europe, never South America, despite the fact that they play some amazing soccer there, too. No one talks about U.S. Soccer hiring Marcelo Bielsa or Jorge Pekerman, for instance, despite the fact that both men have far more distinguished resumes than Klinsmann, particularly when it comes to managing and directing national soccer programs.
But if you think Americans don't have the chops, I have one name for you: Tom Byer. Yeah, you don't know him.
But Byer — or Tom-san, as the Japanese affectionately call him — is single-handedly responsible for turning Japan into a soccer hegemon. An enthusiastic teacher of the Coerver Method of youth soccer training, over the last 24 years Byer's become one of the biggest proponents of grassroots youth soccer development in Japan, conducting events in more than 2,000 locations with a total of 500,000 children participating.
What's alternately comic and tragic about this is that Byer's doing this in Asia. Meanwhile, in the United States, kids are being coached by League Two and Conference National rejects, who never tire of talking about the one time they got defensively pantsed by England's Brave John Terry in the fourth round of the League Cup. I mean, I would too, but I'm not coaching kids, and neither should they.
Here's my point: 24 years after the 1990 World Cup, we should be secure enough in our soccer selves that the performance of a guy like Jurgen Klinsmann should be embarrassing. We shouldn't be defending it, or saying that he's raised the profile of the USMNT, or any such similar, arrant nonsense.
Our performance in soccer over this last quarter-century is far better than that of more "established" soccer nations. We should act like it, and we should be demanding better. At this point, our lack of confidence in American soccer is holding us back.
It's time to embrace American soccer, and stop trying to turn it into a pallid imitation of something it can never become. Continuing to do so is only a recipe for continued frustration. It's time for Jurgen Klinsmann to go.