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Is Jurgen Klinsmann lost?

Written by Will Parchman

United States Practice Session

Jurgen Klinsmann and roster releases are on awkward terms with the American public. For every roster that elicits a collective head bob that you can almost see from behind Twitter’s electronic plate glass window, Klinsmann produces four that break off gear teeth and cause the whole thing to rumble to a halt. Did… is that Alan Gordon? Is this the final chapter of a Hunter S. Thompson novel or is that Alan Gordon?

Klinsmann’s second Gold Cup roster dump was not particularly different in that regard. After a post-World Cup friendly season in which Klinsmann blindly threw bricks against a wall, Klinsmann’s Gold Cup roster felt like a relapse. Like we’d lost something.

Among the call-ups were Graham Zusi, the aforementioned Bash Brother and Brad Davis, who, at the time of his Gold Cup call in late June, had played all of 246 minutes in six weeks. He was also 33 (still is, in fact!) and was gaining back fitness from an injury. This is germane.

Let’s, if we may, zero in on Davis for a moment. On June 30, U.S. Soccer shot out a release with the following headline:

davis

The story bore all the telltale hallmarks of a non-story for so many obvious reasons. Davis has never been a particularly effective national team player, except in minute bursts against inferior competition. He had been battling injury, after all, so who was to argue his exclusion? We are not doctors, most of us. On a deeper level, though, Davis’ presence at this tournament seemed to be an affront to the pilings Klinsmann had been stacking for the past six months. Considering who was already there (Bradley, Dempsey, Guzan), was Davis’ leadership here really necessary in exchange for the roster spot he’d Hoovered from someone younger, more promising?

Klinsmann’s post-World Cup friendly schedule (for our purposes, the Czech Republic game on Sept. 3, 2014 through the Guatemala game on July 3, 2015) was only saved from near disaster by a breathless run through Europe last spring. The U.S. went 7-6-4 in those 17 matches. Klinsmann’s XIs seemed haphazard at times, thrown together in boyish haste and then abandoned at the fluttering of a thought. He played a three-man back line for a half against Chile and never touched it again. He gave an in-form Perry Kitchen 27 minutes against Mexico and then ignored him. He moved DeAndre Yedlin from right back to an uncomfortable spot in right midfield (as he’s desperately fighting for a spot with Spurs at right back) despite the fact that the player who’d displaced Yedlin, Timmy Chandler, can hardly find his own feet. He has obstinately ignored and willfully refused to ingratiate No. 10 types, few of them as there are, and instead – literally from his very first match in charge against Mexico in 2011 – shoehorned Michael Bradley into a dopey role atop the midfield that wastes so much space and forces him to run until his legs are gelatin. The Mix Experiment continues apace while Benny Feilhaber rips holes in the MLS time continuum. Ventura Alvarado is still a thing. His substitution methods can still be baffling.

Klinsmann has drifted from tactically strange to tactically stranger for much of his tenure, but that process has accelerated since the World Cup. And then we have Davis, drifting off into some strange orange ether.

Davis was quietly cast off from the Gold Cup team with an injury despite the fact that he’d played a steady 61 minutes in Houston’s 2-0 loss to FC Dallas on June 26. Four days later, Davis was gone, U.S. Soccer citing a knee injury. And then this, after a 77-minute spell against the Chicago Fire five days later.

Since being scratched from the Gold Cup roster, Davis has started literally all five games for the Dynamo, and he’s gone 90 in the last four. Four of those five minutes nearly directly overlapped with Gold Cup games. Weird. An operative buzzword.

This, right here, is Klinsmann’s tenure in a nutshell. A small thing covered by a blanket, left under the sun to pile up on all the rest. Confusion, a course correction and a blind walk into some distant, overwhelming sun.

Klinsmann has done a fine job in caging his missteps in small, individual pens. None of them are particularly large on their own, and when isolated from the rest they lose their power and eventually fall off the eyes like scales. Klinsmann’s done what’s been expected of him on a base level – he’s won a Gold Cup, won his CONCACAF qualifying group, regularly beat Mexico, progressed out of the group at a World Cup. These are the major bullet points laid over top of some major cracks in the team’s foundation. Based on the first year of the new cycle, are you more or less excited about the senior team for 2018 than the 2014 squad? Be honest with yourself.

Those missteps were easily plowed over over the course of his first term in office. If you’re building toward something, then we take those grains and move on with them. But where is Klinsmann going? Where is he taking this group? Based on his erratic tactical maneuvers and wild shifts in player call-ins, does he even know?

The reality is that those things Klinsmann is building toward have little to do with his current mandate as a game-by-game manager. They are by and large things he had no possibility – no inkling of a possibility – of fulfilling in the seven years he’ll ultimately spend at this rudder. I’ve covered this ground before, about Klinsmann’s view toward training, about how he mentions Cruyff and a 20-year building process in his introductory presser in 2011. For the love of dessert, Klinsmann says, verbatim, “youngster’s curriculum” in the same breath as CONCACAF in that conference. We didn’t see it then, but Klinsmann was already a technical director first and a tactical manager second. We only needed to wait three years before he was bestowed with the former honorific to all but confirm it.

What the Davis situation elucidates and his body of work further illuminates is that while Klinsmann is a brilliant schemer, something tends to get lost in translation on field level. This is not a new phenomenon, either. He is a marathon runner in a sprinter’s job, missing mile markers while he squints toward the tape on the horizon. From the report on the final loss at Bayern that led to his ultimate ouster, Ze Roberto’s words echo.

klinssAfter all, as much as we know about Klinsmann The Philosopher, what do we know about him as a game-day coach based on the reams of footage we now have? Really? As much as Bob Bradley had lost the mandate of U.S. Soccer by the end of the 2011 Gold Cup, we at least knew what we were firing. So our feeble attempts to define what it is we can expect to see from any given Klinsmann-coached USMNT side are ultimately crosswise with one another. This helps to explain how a team of his can beat not entirely depleted Netherlands and Germany sides on the road and then lose to Jamaica on home soil not two months later. A 4-2-3-1? Yes. A 4-3-3? That also. A 3-5-2? It’s happened, yes. A 4-4-2? In more variations than one, indeed.

The farcical Cuba match aside, the U.S. was out-shot 85-47 in the Gold Cup. At the World Cup in 2014, its last competitive tournament of import, the U.S. was out-shot 92-44, which was the worst total in U.S. history at any World Cup in the modern era. By miles. If you’ll permit me to reference Klinsmann’s introductory press conference again, I’ve pulled out his nut graf here and highlighted his most salient point.

regression

Draw your own conclusions about how well Klinsmann’s done engendering those theses since 2011, but remember that he’s openly invited us, the media, into those failures and successes, too. From the very beginning.

media

In this Klinsmann will of course shift blame, whatever of it there is to be had, back to the players, as has been his wont since arriving. And there is some of that, to be certain. The player pool is certainly not immune to criticism. But Klinsmann ultimately prunes that player pool to his whims, bends it into whatever sunlight pours onto the porch and grows whatever he’s planted there within the system he’s chosen. When it comes to MLS players, he’s continually been stabbing at shadows. Shipp, Kitchen, Feilhaber, multiple young U23s, and myriad of their cohort are waiting. To join what system? Well. Another question entirely.

Federations tend to cut managers loose after four years with unerring consistency for the very reason Klinsmann’s displayed over the past year. Klinsmann The Technical Director has set too many snares for Klinsmann The Coach, who is operating as a sort of Svengali-In-Residence on the sideline, waiting to be replaced so he can return to the background to move pieces into place on a broader, 30,000-foot level. And that probably suits him. The developmental principles he espouses are largely sound ones. There’s little to argue against in that regard.

But how that makes him better on the sideline, in the war room, in the locker room, for the coming cycle – the most critical in U.S. history in so many ways – remains to be seen, if it even does. In the first cycle, Klinsmann at least felt like he was conducting some sort of train headed in a general direction. He is a motivator, after all, and players will rally to motivators even when they don’t understand them. But what were those post-World Cup friendly matches if not a dress rehearsal for a time when games mattered? And what was the Gold Cup if not a referendum on those 17 matches Klinsmann had in preparation? If he has lost his trail, he would not be the first manager mired in his second consecutive World Cup cycle to do so.

Technical directors are ultimately judged by posterity. Head coaches are judged by present circumstance. The day might not be long in coming when Klinsmann has to pick his poison.

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