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Everybody lost in the needless Nagbe-Klinsmann showdown

Written by Will Parchman


The moment certain things happen, and those certain things are bad things, you feel them. A leg break, a poorly taken test, a car wreck. It’s like the weight of them rushes on you all at once and there isn’t time to line the moment with silver. It’s bad. There are no shades of anything else.

That’s mostly how it felt when Darlington Nagbe said no to a Jurgen Klinsmann call-up for a pair of national team friendlies against Cuba and New Zealand earlier this month. According to the initial Taylor Twellman report on Twitter, Nagbe walked away from the table over “family reasons.” Grant Wahl reported today it goes a bit deeper than that.

Part of the reason was a lack of playing time, but there were other ways in which Nagbe didn’t feel valued by Klinsmann. Sources in Portland and with U.S. Soccer say that Nagbe had conversations with Klinsmann and the national team staff, and those sources now think it’s possible that Nagbe may not get called back in to the team moving forward.

That last tidbit was the screeching noise you heard scaring away anything approaching optimism. This was it. Klinsmann’s ways are secret, but they are not hard to figure. He elevates national team moments – any national team moments – above relationships and explanations and even logic. You come or you wither. And you could almost feel Klinsmann’s livid stare boring a hole in the ozone over Portland.

As long as the USMNT is Klinsmann’s realm, Nagbe will not have a place in it. Crash.

I, for one, don’t think there’s any doubt about this. If Klinsmann’s showed any personnel predilection aside from his boundless optimism in the locker room, it’s the steadfast ability to hang onto cold war grudges for players who find themselves outside its confines. There is no logical reason for continued snubs on players in their prime like Matt Hedges, Dax McCarty, Benny Feilhaber, aside from behavior that gave him personal license him to exclude them.

The license Nagbe so willingly just handed over.

I think it’s fair to come at this from two ends of the same burning fuse. Neither burned evenly. Let’s first look at Klinsmann’s case framed by what I deem as his thesis statement as to why Nagbe’s appearance in these two friendlies meant so much to him.

Klinsmann: You haven’t proven yourself. I need to see more.

This is a fair opinion, and one which I don’t think Nagbe’s adequately answered. Nagbe’s only played 10 matches under Klinsmann in the last year since becoming USMNT eligible, and there hasn’t been much in the way of incisiveness. He’s scored the one goal – a 90th minute winner in a friendly against Ecuador that caused no shortage of hype – but it’s fair to say Klinsmann was still attempting to figure out where Nagbe fit in his ever-shifting tactical construct.

“Ah,” but Nagbe might respond. “Look deeper.” And so we must.

Nearly a year into his USMNT career and Nagbe has still yet to receive the benefit of a start. He’s been a sub in all 10 of his appearances, and look at who he’s subbed on for: Fabian Johnson, Tim Ream (!), Ethan Finlay, Lee Nguyen, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley. Literally 10 different players in 10 subtly different deployments, and each time it seemed as though he was asked to do subtle things differently: dig out opposing possession on the left, collapse centrally, find space on the right, find space underneath the front line.

Or, as is more likely the case considering his sideline, he simply got a pat on the back and was told to make it work. Nagbe, as MLS fans no doubt know now, needs a constrictive framework. Otherwise he simply disappears into the fog. A bit coincidental then that he’s done precisely that on the national team level, isn’t it?

Klinsmann had reason to be upset that Nagbe turned down his call-up. Nagbe’s hardly done anything close to establish himself, and Klinsmann was understandably perturbed that he elevated his own internal monologue over the needs of the team. Grow where you’re planted, as they say. But doesn’t Nagbe have just as clear a case that Klinsmann’s hardly set him up to succeed? Nagbe hasn’t taken his chances and Klinsmann hasn’t given him enough good ones. I think it’s fair to saddle both men with that.

Which leads us to Nagbe’s theoretical counter.

Nagbe: I can’t leave my team for a coach who doesn’t know how to use me.

The Timbers’ late-season swoon put them in a perilous position for the postseason push. At the time of Klinsmann’s call, the Timbers needed results just to keep their playoff hopes alive. Nagbe, a career Timbers player and a Caleb Porter acolyte, in essence chose club over adopted country of citizenship. This time, anyway.

Klinsmann punished Nagbe for this, and to be sure, other national teamers heeded the call in the crucibles of their respective seasons. I dare say Klinsmann would’ve dropped his own first-born to streak to a national team camp in his playing days. Nagbe is different. So different, in fact, that I don’t think Klinsmann understands much about what makes him tick.

Was it reasonable for Klinsmann to bristle at Nagbe shying away from a call-up during a critical time for his club? Yes. Was it also reasonable for Nagbe to wonder why his presence was so important for two forgettable friendlies (one of which was played on the surface of the moon) during a critical time for his club? Yes. These two things? Not mutually exclusive. Both men have gripes, each valid if not equally so.

Nagbe is wrong for internalizing so deeply. He sees Klinsmann’s bizarre tactical choices at his expense as a personal slight. Why else would he continue to start matches on the bench and continue to be jerked around positionally if Klinsmann valued him as a potential World Cup 2018 contributor? I think what Nagbe fails to realize is that it isn’t personal. This is Klinsmann. He’s tactically capricious and fundamentally difficult to understand. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. So of course an introspective player attempting to understand those wicked switchbacks struggles to find his footing. He isn’t the first.

Klinsmann is wrong for expecting so much from Nagbe when he’s given him so little in the first place. His actions helped pave these uneven roads. He called up a player he’s continually jerked around tactically for a couple friendlies, given him no reasonable indication based on past practices he’ll get meaningful minutes, and done so in the midst of Portland’s most crucial stretch of the season. This is what the kids call a perfect storm.

I don’t think Nagbe was right to turn down the call, necessarily. I believe he knew in some deep place the moment he stepped over that line that his national team career under Klinsmann was over. But I also think there’s a battered, unbroken line of personnel wreckage that led us to this point. And so in that construct the response made sense. It’s possible to think Nagbe was right to turn away the call and Klinsmann was right to then turn away Nagbe. And to then lament the process that got us here in the first place.

The USMNT has had a peculiarly troublesome time holding onto players in that critical 23-28 age range under Klinsmann. I often wonder why that is, and then moments like these emerge and maybe it’s not so hard to understand after all.

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