I am about to offer you an opinion of indeterminate heat and without value determination. It is neither god nor devil, but the fact that we have been driven here – or more to the point that I have been driven here – says something. I’m not quite sure what yet.
Jurgen Klinsmann may well need to start 17-year-old Christian Pulisic on Tuesday against Guatemala.
I remember where I was when Klinsmann was hired. I was situated in the corner of a nondescript Starbucks. On a national scale, the news hit like a paperweight, but I was riveted. Looking back, I now realize the lion’s share of average American soccer fans based either the majority or the near entirety of their opinions on his suitability around his latent Europeanness and a 2:34 YouTube clip. How much younger Klinsmann looks there.
But what I remember specifically was the prevailing and lingering notes of patience. It is not a novel sporting concept on these shores, though it might be elsewhere. Bob Bradley had five years to allow his empire to build and fall. Bruce Arena had eight before him. I can remember thinking how much Klinsmann needed time. What an ephemeral concept that is, and how much his concepts would need to dry and then distill and then sit in oak casks.
In November 2011, four months into Klinsmann’s reign, I wrote a piece for No Short Corners in which I defended his 1-3-1 record and his tinkerman approach. He played Michael Bradley as the lead midfield attacking spoke in a 4-2-3-1 in his first match against Mexico, and we thought then that Klinsmann was playing with his green army men, pawing at this lineup while he devised something greater. This was the crux of my argument then.
I commend Jurgen for taking a measured approach in a field that long ago dumped the idea of gradual assessment. He’s seeing for himself what works with this side and what doesn’t, what Bob Bradley really had right and what actually needed correction. Was it really just his over-reliance on the empty bucket? Can the US ever field the current world standard 4-3-3? Can Edgar Castillo work? What about Jose Torres? What if I put Dempsey here, or if I leave Jozy up there? The message boards have been alight on the myriad issues for years, but until Klinsmann pulled taut the rubber gloves and shoved in his arms up to the elbow, how could he know? There is a limit — there is always a limit — but he has not reached it yet. It has always been about expectation with this team.
Given these comments in his introductory presser a month earlier, I suppose the benefit of the doubt had practically been painted onto his chest in the form of Kevlar.
“I’ve played in different countries, and they all have their own identities and style. I believe that soccer has to reflect the culture of the country. I’ve studied the U.S. the last 13 years, and it’s going to be quite a challenge. There are a lot of opinions, a lot of ideas from youth soccer to college, which is a model different from anywhere in the world.
“What will be the U.S. style of play? Aggressive or reactive?”
In most ways, Klinsmann has not done much to answer any of those questions, and that, in itself, will be the first actual nails driven into his USMNT coffin if the U.S. loses to Guatemala on Tuesday. In the last year, the U.S. has lost at home to a Caribbean team for the first time since 1968, failed to even reach to the Gold Cup stage that ultimately ended Bob Bradley’s national team tenure, missed the Confederations Cup (again), and sits outside qualification for the World Cup after three matches in a patsy of a group.
Forget the rest for a moment, though, and focus on the rest. If Klinsmann was interested in defining any kind of coherent style of “American” play, perhaps the roster would reflect each player’s best position?
Tactically, Klinsmann has been a puzzling mess, especially of late. Friday’s incoherent display was merely another bulb in a string of lights that leads us back to ground zero, in 2011. He has been doing this since he was hired, and our patience allowed us to believe he was building brick on brick. In reality he was removing them as fast as he was placing them.
Jurgen is playing an attacking mid at DM because he’s playing a defensive mid at RB because he’s playing a right back on the right wing.
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) March 26, 2016
Herman Melville once wrote that ignorance is the parent of fear, and I’m inclined to think Klinsmann-as-coach is a relation to both. He picks lineups as though he is ignorant and his teams play as though they are scared. How else to explain Michael Bradley’s shoehorned role and Mix Diskerud and DeAndre Yedlin-as-midfielder and TWO CENTER BACK SUBSTITUTIONS IN ONE GAME and whatever he’s done with Darlington Nagbe.
There is more idealism here than maybe we wanted to believe after five years in the captain’s chair.
This is why his maddest option may work like gangbusters. Pulisic almost certainly will not start on Tuesday, but should he? Conventional wisdom will say no, of course, but conventional wisdom got us here. All of this. The sum of all of five years of motion is here, in the most ludicrously outlandish roster decision of Klinsmann’s career. And it just might save it, in the end.
I know precisely how this argument can be cut at the knees, and I understand its heart. Why, you posit, should a 17-year-old barely-professional Christian Pulisic start a match the U.S. needs to qualify for the World Cup and Klinsmann needs to solidify his job positioning? And that question, I’d say, is rooted in Melville’s fear. It is not positioned in the moment sheared of some boring, trite conventional wisdom that young players can’t play in big games. I want you to burn that and return to us when you are back.
There is no one like Pulisic in this midfield. If Klinsmann’s oddly morphed 4-1-3-2 did not prove this to you at the start of the second half against Guatemala – the only passage that looked even mildly coherent from an American perspective – then you didn’t see Nagbe drift from station to station like he’d been given a progression map and told to play every position at least once. Nobody is comfortable under the striker, and it has been this way since Klinsmann joined. He has either outwardly refused to play 10s with anything approaching consistency or refused to even call them into his camps altogether.
His facsimile is Diskerud, which maybe tells you more than you wanted to know.
If you protect Pulisic, he will give you more than those afraid of this setup are willing to admit. If you activate Pulisic – if you give him the license to play – you are unleashing a creative force into the lineup that has the potential of becoming, eventually, the first real central attacking playmaker in this pool since Tab Ramos and the first to actually play the position with consistency since Hugo Perez. And if you think dropping him into this atmosphere will ruin him – or some other oddity of logic – then I think our paths dovetail. Having watched Pulisic for years and watched those he would replace for long enough, I say you are afraid. Your pragmatism has destroyed you, and you have become the thing you hate.
This of course is contingent upon Pulisic’s fitness. If he arrives in camp with a lingering injury or burned legs, there is nothing to be done. But if all is equal, and Pulisic’s tank is full, I pull the ripcord. Because the only thing to lose at this point is face that left after last week’s disaster in Guatemala City. And if he can’t generate any rapport with the team, then there is that as well. This is not a cut-and-dry issue.
But otherwise, if the only thing separating the U.S. and Russia 2018 is Pulisic and whoever else he would replace, then there are problems beyond everything. They can not do much worse than Friday.
Let me say this. When Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius looked at his line of succession and saw Commodus – the madman who inspired the antagonist in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator – he no doubt understood the nearly 200-year-old lineage of masterful world-conquering emperors was at its end. In many ways it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. I see how this midfield has been used and I see Christian Pulisic and I see the exact inverse.
You may say that this is not the time. And I say this is exactly the time to get weird.
Realistically, do I think Pulisic will happen? No. Of course not. There will be the familiar midfield, which grunts forward optimistically but blindly, and perhaps because it is Columbus and it is Guatemala, the U.S. will win and Sunil Gulati will forget all about how embarrassing Friday ultimately was. Pulisic will probably play 15 minutes at the death, and we’ll get some words about his progression and how he’s coming along and that will be that. And we will not ask questions because he is 17 and what do we know?
But the U.S. midfield is not Spain. And it certainly has not earned the right to play on Tuesday, on the whole.
If Klinsmann has any desire to live up to his mantra of dictating play and aspiring to develop and all of those lofty things he once told us were so important when he took the dais in U.S. Soccer accoutrements for the first time, doing the outrageous – the unthinkable – is his only play now. It could be Pulisic. It is staring down fear and wondering at its teeth and making the mad decision anyway.