Klinsmann Gets Hexed

klinsmannhexed2If my blog were one of the fake news sites that have been getting so much press, the opening line to this post would read: One week after Donald Trump’s election, US Soccer fired their immigrant coach and replaced him with an American nationalist opposed to the use of foreign-born players. The reality is a good deal more nuanced, of course, but there is enough truth in this clickbait headline that the new realities of football–soccer–in Trump’s America bear investigating.

Before the hysteria, though, some football analysis.

The Games

After two pointless games in the so-called hex of CONCACAF World Cup Qualification, Jürgen Klinsmann has been fired as Coach of the United States Men’s National team and replaced by Bruce Arena. The losses, taken alone, don’t seem to justify his dismissal. Though the United States have had a surprisingly good home record against Mexico recently, this game can always go either way. And since the US have never beaten Costa Rica away, one can hardly fault Klinsmann for not getting a point against a Costa Rican side that is as strong as in recent memory–probably, the best team in CONCACAF currently. These were undoubtedly two the hardest games in the hex, so the failure to get a point is disappointing but hardly disastrous. The US still have eight games, half of them at home, in which to achieve the 15 points generally seen as the “magic” number for qualification. Klinsmann, too, went into these games without starters Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Alejandro Bedoya.

The nature of the losses, however, did the German no favors. While the United States looked the better team for most of the Mexico game and were probably unlucky not to come away with a point, their play only improved after a 26th minute change of formation. The team started in a 3-4-1-2, with Christian Pulisic playing underneath strikers Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore. This isn’t a ridiculous idea, particularly at the offensive end.  Both Altidore and Michael Bradley have been playing together for MLS Cup finalists Toronto FC in both a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-1-2, suggesting these aren’t formations beyond the scope of simple-minded Americans. But it was clear almost immediately that any theoretical advantages in attack were proving irrelevant given Mexico’s high press on the three center-backs. This pressure left the US incapable of playing the ball out of the back or retaining any significant possession.

At 26′, when Andrés Guardado went down with a muscle injury, Bradley and Jermaine Jones made for the sideline and were seen having a discussion with Klinsmann. Post-match accounts have suggested it was the players rather than coach who demanded a change in formation, a shift to a 4-4-2 with Pulisic on the left wing and Fabian Johnson shifting to the right. In his post-match interviews, Bradley suggested twice that the players weren’t clear about their roles in the 3-4-1-2, sounding very much like a player not quite blaming his coach.

Adding to the poor impression was the fact that Mexican manager Juan Carlos Osorio–under considerable pressure himself–made an immediate formation change when the United States came out, shifting Miguel Layún from right to left (likely part of a shift from a back three to a back four). It was Layún who scored Mexico’s opening goal, and most of their attack came down that left flank. Osorio’s prompt and effective in-game decision highlighted Klinsmann’s lack of nous.

The Costa Rica game again seemed to underline Klinsmann’s poor game management. Costa Rica scored near the end of the first half, and were clearly the better team (if not dominantly so). But Klinsmann waited until after a second goal, scored by Costa Rican sub Joel Campbell, to make a change. When he did, it was to remove bright young thing Pulisic in favor of the young and very fast, but far less shiny Lynden Gooch (that’s a Sunderland midfielder replacing a Borussia Dortmund striker). At least he managed to get his final substitution, Graham Zusi for Fabian Johnson, in before Campbell scored his second and Costa Rica’s third goal rather than after it.

It always easy to criticize a losing manager’s substitutions after the fact, especially in a game that ended up being a blow-out. But Klinsmann had been treading on thin ice with fans for some time–reading between the lines, perhaps with players too. His consistent use of players out of position, his failure to settle on a single formation and line-up, all have left fans deeply unhappy and unconvinced. These two games and both the actions and comments of players suggested that Klinsmann had lost the locker room, and that probably means that it’s time for the coach to go. Many fans felt that the change was long overdue.

The New Man

Enter Bruce Arena, long-time coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy and former US Men’s coach during the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. The case for Arena is fairly clear. He is a successful pragmatist and steady hand that has shown in the past his ability to navigate World Cup Qualifying, arguably with less talent at his disposal than at present. Moreover, he is quick to point out that he is much more qualified now to coach the national team than in his first run, having spent nearly a decade in charge of the most dominant MLS club in the past decade (winning 2 Supporter’s Shields for best regular season record and 3 MLS Cup play-off championships in that time). Given how many top players for the remaining CONCACAF opponents are based in MLS, this experience seems particularly relevant.

Though much earlier in the qualification campaign, the hiring of Arena seems not unlike Mexico’s choice of Miguel Herrera, former Club América and current Tijuana manager, going into their intercontinental play-off against New Zealand to qualify for the last World Cup. A change was needed to ensure that the unthinkable–failure to qualify for the World Cup–did not occur. Herrera was a star of the domestic league, which ensured a certain popularity with fans (moreso, one suspects than with Arena, given the justifiably higher respect for Liga MX amongst Mexican fans than for MLS in the States). And as with Herrera, a qualification campaign turnaround that will see Arena in place to lead the United State into the World Cup.

One further similarity to Herrera is a bit more troubling. Just as Herrera won the qualification play-off with a team made up solely of domestic players, Arena has been openly critical of Klinsmann’s use of foreign-born players. In Herrera’s case, he made clear that his nationalism was specifically needed to ensure a focused preparation for the qualification play-off by using Mexico-based players for the Mexico-based camp.  Indeed, the team was not only Mexico-based but largely Club América-based, which meant a familiarity with Herrera and his approach that allowed for a desirable unity. By the time of the World Cup, his side fully incorporated European-based players (with the complicated exception of Carlos Vela).

Since his appointment at head of the national team, Arena has tried to walk back his previous comments, but not very successfully. In fact, he was frequently critical of foreign-born players in the build-up to the last World Cup, and his more recent comments focusing on “heart” and “pride” don’t exactly sound repentant.

It should noted, in his defense, that Arena’s actual national teams were no less dependent than Klinsmann’s on foreign-born players. A more elaborate defense might add that his comments may have primarily been support for his club player, American-born (and largely American-based) Landon Donovan. Donovan was publicly criticized by Klinsmann for taking a sabbatical around the same time as Arena’s comments began and was eventually dropped from the 2014 World Cup roster. Donovan himself made comments similar to Arena’s, offered in support of Abby Wambach’s own criticism of Klinsmann’s use of foreign-born players at the end of last year. In all of these public statements, one senses a personal issue with Klinsmann plays a significant role.

But as I said with regard to Wambach’s comments last year, the rhetoric of then-candidate, now-President-Elect Donald Trump underlines the anti-cosmopolitanism, nationalist sentiments underlying those views. More to the point, since I am not running a fake news (or a real politics) site, I think the notion of a primarily US-based squad is a bad football decision. Whatever Klinsmann’s failures as an onfield tactician (a criticism that has long followed him), the quality of the players he has introduced, particularly German-born and/or German-based, has been substantial. The next coach of the United States National team should be looking to build on these successes rather than to shut them down. Even if Arena is open to building bridges with many if not all of the players Klinsmann has brought in, he seems ill-suited to expanding the international scouting program for US soccer.

Nor is this Arena’s only retrograde view. In yet another recent interview, Arena announced himself an analytics skeptic, suggesting that because the Colorado Rapids had outshot the Seattle Sounders 16-6 in the Western Conference Finals of the MLS Cup, soccer was not amenable to such analysis. That this is a position in opposition to Klinsmann’s creation of a data analysis department in the US Federation is less important than that it is simply a stupid attitude, and one that further underlines the degree to which Arena seems a step backwards.

In the end, Arena may well be the right man for the job of getting the United States qualified for the World Cup. As a short-term replacement for Klinsmann, it seems difficult to argue with the change. Whether he is the right man for any kind of sustained growth, however, remains to be seen. Personally, I am more willing to give Arena the benefit of the doubt than I am our current President-Elect. But I am not particularly happy with Arena as a long-term prospect, and the things he has been saying thus far do little to assuage those less immediate but still quite important concerns.

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