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Jul 16, 2014

Judging Jurgen Klinsmann

ESPN FC's Tommy Smyth weighs in on the World Cup's impact on the growing U.S. audience.

With the dust finally settled on the 2014 World Cup -- one in which the USMNT escaped a group of death with Portugal, Ghana and Germany before losing in extra time to Belgium in the knockout stage -- we asked experts for their opinions on where things stand. Is Jurgen Klinsmann the right coach for the U.S. moving forward? What's next for the players who starred -- or struggled -- in Brazil?

Our experts:
- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
- Doug McIntyre, staff writer for ESPN The Magazine, has covered the USMNT since 2005.
- Gabriele Marcotti, a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer.
- Mike L. Goodman, freelance football writer based in Washington, D.C., and contributor to Grantland.com, Foreign Policy magazine and Statsbomb.com.
- Alexi Lalas, ESPN soccer analyst and former star for the U.S. national team.

In the first of a two-part series, we discuss Klinsmann, his plan, his suitability and any alternatives that U.S. Soccer ought to consider.

1. Is Klinsmann the right man for the job?

Jeff Carlisle: At present, I think he is. He has some good attributes and certainly brings a charismatic presence to the role. I would like to see him start to deliver on some of the stylistic aims that he has espoused throughout his tenure.

Doug McIntyre: Yes, I think he is.

Gab Marcotti: There are things he does well and others he does less well. Right now, I guess, the job involves a kind of evangelical role (I assume that's why he was hired), and he's good at that. At some point, you'll need a more "grown-up" coach.

Klinsmann has done wonders for U.S. Soccer, but we debate whether his long-term plan is worth following.
Klinsmann has done wonders for U.S. Soccer, but we debate whether his long-term plan is worth following.

Mike Goodman: Unequivocally, yes. It's hard to find a standard he hasn't met over the past three years. The results are clearly there. That doesn't mean he's perfect or that there aren't things he needs to improve upon, but those things haven't prevented Klinsmann and the team from meeting and exceeding expectations put upon them.

The idea that this question even needs answering is a testament to where the U.S. program is at this point. It just had a World Cup where it made it through the group and took a very good Belgium team through 120 minutes. There's also a general sense that the U.S. could have done better. That's a good thing. Maybe Klinsmann should take some blame for the fact that it didn't, but he also deserves credit for building the team that inspired that sense.

Alexi Lalas: I see no reason to change at this moment. I think that he has gotten this team out of a difficult group, and I think that he has made this team a better version of itself. I would be interested to see whether there is a continuation of the promise for this team to play, in his words, a more proactive style. I mean, there's the promise and then the actual illustration of it when it counts. It will be interesting to see what happens ...

2. What makes Klinsmann right for the job?

Carlisle: Obviously his skills as a motivator are renowned, as is his willingness to blood new players. I think this latter ability will be even more important now that a new World Cup cycle is beginning. He has a bit more time to look at some of the younger players and judge how much they can be counted on. I'm not just talking guys who were already on the World Cup roster (DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Julian Green) but also guys who came through the under-20 ranks and are getting playing time with their clubs like Wil Trapp and Luis Gil.

Klinsmann has also shown a willingness to force players out of their comfort zones. Granted, I think past coaches have done this as well, but he's made it very clear that he doesn't want his players being content with what they have. His experience as a World Cup winner and a former coach of Germany's national team gives him some street cred, although I think that only takes a coach so far.

Klinsmann has extracted a lot from his squad thanks to his mastery of motivational techniques.
Klinsmann has extracted a lot from his squad thanks to his mastery of motivational techniques.

McIntyre: First of all, he has a clearly defined vision. And while 31 coaches, including Klinsmann, will be open to second-guessing after the World Cup, the German did a fine job overall. He survived an extremely difficult group, most of his controversial roster decisions paid off, and I think got the most out of the talent he had. That's all you can really ask of any manager.

Also, it's important to note that Klinsmann has been at the helm for less than three years. The past two U.S. bosses, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, each had the national team for a full four-year cycle before his first World Cup. Plus, the changes Klinsmann is attempting to implement are more ambitious than those of his predecessors; it took almost two years for his players to fully buy in, but he got them there. Overall, the positives far outweigh the negatives for me; I'm curious to see whether he's able to take the entire national team program -- not just the senior squad -- forward between now and 2018.

Marcotti: He's charismatic and he resonates with certain people. And he "gets" the U.S. while also having a European pedigree as a player.

Goodman: Klinsmann's biggest strength isn't necessarily one that appears on the field, it's the degree to which he's expanded the U.S. talent pool. Players like Green, Fabian Johnson and Brooks are ones whom the U.S. may not have had at their disposal had he not made it a priority to bring in the best possible American talent no matter what it might be. It's a role that his iconic status in the game makes Klinsmann uniquely suited for.

Klinsmann is uniquely suited to tapping the world for talent, including the likes of Julian Green.
Klinsmann is uniquely suited to tapping the world for talent, including the likes of Julian Green.

Lalas: I don't think you can underestimate the importance of the Klinsmann name and the cachet that it brings in recruitment, in terms of relevancy and respectability when calls are made ... there's incredible value to that. Also his experience as a coach. That's something U.S. Soccer is paying a tremendous amount for, and I think it's gotten a return on that investment.

3. What must Klinsmann fix/improve upon if he is to continue in this role?

Carlisle: I'd like to see Klinsmann put a bit more faith in some of the more creative elements in the player pool. Obviously at the World Cup, Michael Bradley was forced to fill an attacking midfield role that didn't play to his strengths. Going forward, I'd like to see more reliance on guys like Mix Diskerud or Gil, players with a significant amount of professional experience who have shown some ability on the attacking side of the ball. If some of the younger players like Green and Gedion Zelalem (assuming he commits to the U.S.) can continue their development with their clubs, then so much the better.

U.S. World Cup exit reaction:

- Jeff Carlisle: Reviewing Klinsmann's World Cup
- Roger Bennett: The future is bright

- Jason Davis: A tale of two strikers
Chris Jones: Band of brothers go down fighting
- Doug McIntyre: Young players shine
- Landon Donovan: We need to keep developing
- Klinsmann Cam: Emotional ups and downs vs. Belgium
- Pablo S. Torre: Hey, America, where are you going?

McIntyre: First of all, he's probably going to have to find replacements for Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. Even if Brad Guzan is ready to step in in goal with little drop-off, Howard's leadership won't be easily replaced. Losing Dempsey, who will be 35 by the time Russia rolls around, could leave an even bigger void for a country that doesn't produce many elite attackers. So Klinsmann will have to continue to give opportunities to young players, something he says he'll do, before qualifying begins in two years. He'll also have to keep recruiting dual-nationals: If he's able to bring in Zelalem, who is also eligible for Germany (and Ethiopia), that would be a massive coup.

Marcotti: I don't think his history suggests he's a particularly good X's and O's coach. For all the buzz that 2006 got, let's not forget that a host nation going out in the semis is not that big a deal. (And Germany probably should have lost to Argentina in the quarters.) He's not a great tactician, and if you listen to the Bayern folks, he was way out of his depth. He needs what he had in 2006: a Joachim Low and an Oliver Bierhoff.

One criticism against Klinsmann is his need for assistants in charge of team tactics, like Jogi Low.
One criticism against Klinsmann is his need for assistants in charge of team tactics, like Jogi Low.

Goodman: A willingness to experiment tactically is fine, but it needs to settle into something cohesive so that a team can jell. In this World Cup cycle, Klinsmann's biggest faults revolved around the fact that the U.S. plan emerged comparatively late. It wasn't until the send-off series that Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman all played significant minutes together. Add to that the fact that Klinsmann didn't seem to have a truly effective plan for replacing Jozy Altidore and you have a team that was at a severe disadvantage just 17 minutes into its opening game.

That the U.S. emerged from the group despite that handicap was a testament to both the players and the coaching staff. But the fact that a single injury derailed the whole process is a preparation issue that is squarely at Klinsmann's feet. The reality of managing a national team is that you need to prepare it to peak every four years at the right time; there's definitely a sense that Klinsmann didn't do that.

Lalas: I think he has to deliver on his promise of this team playing in a different way and to have a team that is not afraid to dictate the play. Or he must recognize that this is not achievable and have the confidence to go in another direction.

4. If not Klinsmann, who else could build off his foundational work and create a national team that can go further in international competition?

Carlisle: In terms of MLS coaches, I can think of a few in Jason Kreis, Dominic Kinnear and Peter Vermes. Kreis has made a commitment to attacking soccer throughout his career -- I think he would continue that if he was handed the reins of the U.S. national team job. In Houston, Kinnear has been forced to be a bit more pragmatic in terms of style, but think of some of the attacking players who excelled under his watch like Dwayne De Rosario and Stuart Holden. I think Kinnear would do a good job as well.

The next cycle will be the rest test for Klinsmann: to see whether he can build off what he's started.
The next cycle will be the rest test for Klinsmann: to see whether he can build off what he's started.

I also have huge respect for Vermes. He's consistently had Sporting Kansas City near the top of the MLS heap for several years now, and his style and philosophy are clear. I also think Tab Ramos is one to watch as well, but his only experience as a head coach is with the U-20s. At some point he needs to get a club job and see how he does there. He certainly has shown a commitment to attacking soccer.

The U.S. could always go the foreign route, but another asset of Klinsmann's was his ability to bridge the European and American soccer cultures. I think finding someone with a similar background would be extremely difficult.

McIntyre: I can't see any circumstance where Klinsmann isn't in charge through 2018. He has a contract, for one, and he reiterated his desire to see it through immediately after the Americans' elimination. Really, it's the perfect job for him. He gets to stay in California, and as technical director he oversees the entire program, giving him the control he covets. Klinsmann is the kind of coach who is better suited to the international game than club football. Besides, it's not like U.S. Soccer can just hire anyone it wants.

I think Jose Mourinho would be great for the Yanks -- I also think there's a good chance he'll coach the U.S. someday -- but at this stage of his career, Mourinho seems to like the day-to-day work at club level. Also, the sport's unique setup in the United States and the mentality of the American player can provide challenges for foreign bosses. I'm not sure even Klinsmann fully understood this when he took the job, and he had lived in the country for 13 years at the time.

Who'll succeed him whenever that day comes? If you press me, I'll go with Vermes or Kreis.

Marcotti: You need to define the role first. One idea could be a veteran foreign coach alongside a U.S. up-and-comer who is also charismatic and intelligent and can grow into the job. Key thing to remember, though, is you don't define success by advancement in international competition. You do it by performances over time.

Could Jason Kreis someday manage the U.S. national team?
Could Jason Kreis someday manage the U.S. national team?

Goodman: On the field, there are any number of reasonable replacements that could step in and do Klinsmann's job. Many of them are out of the U.S.'s price range (especially when you consider how expensive getting rid of Klinsmann would be). The international coaching carousel always kicks into high gear after a World Cup, shaking free several big names, so if the U.S. was so inclined, it could wade into the market and come back with a foreign tactician.

It's really the director of football part of Klinsmann's job where he seems largely irreplaceable. There are very few, if any, candidates out there who could match the combination of his iconic status and his familiarity with U.S. soccer.

Lalas: I think a guy like Vermes would be interesting. I enjoy the way that he thinks about the game. But I know he's got a good gig going in Kansas City. I think there are some emerging names ... the likes of Kreis who have a background and understanding of U.S. soccer culture history, played at a high level and can relate to players regardless of their background.

We've had coaches in the past who were domestic coaches who hadn't played for the national team. We've had coaches in the past who were international coaches. We've had coaches who've played at the World Cup but not for the U.S. I think at some point it would be interesting to see an American coach who has played in a World Cup. Or an American coach who has grown up in the modern era of professional soccer in the U.S. and what that looks like.

Thursday brings Part 2: A focus on the players.