Jurgen Klinsmann's U.S. tenure has been so frustrating. Can he fix it?
It's been a terrible week for the United States men's soccer team. On Friday evening, U.S. defender John Brooks lost Rafa Marquez on a corner kick in the 89th minute, allowing the Mexican captain to flick in a header for a 2-1 win by Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. That broke a 30-match undefeated streak in home World Cup qualifiers.
Four days later, the Americans went into Costa Rica's Estadio Nacional, looking for their first-ever World Cup qualifying win in the country only to find the exact opposite. The sound and listless 4-0 defeat left the Stars and Stripes at the bottom of the Hexagonal with zero points after two matches, and left the American soccer faithful desperate for answers.
The good news is that U.S. fans still shouldn't worry about reaching Russia. The squad remains a favorite to do so, a product of CONCACAF's large margin for error in qualifying. The bad news is that the lurching progress isn't going to change under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. To watch this team is to watch a waltz: a step forward, a step sideways, a step back and back to the beginning.
We're now a little more than five years into Klinsmann's tenure as head coach -- 1,937 days, or 1,330 work days, to be exact. He's had more than enough time to get comfortable, remake the squad in his image and tinker to his heart's content. The results are hit or miss, not quite as bad as some in the media and the reactionary supporters seem to think, but by no means as world-changing as many hoped when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati finally convinced the German to join the U.S. program.
The best adjective to suit the Klinsmann era: frustrating. Watch enough games and you see the same coaching mistakes get repeated.
In the Mexico match, the coach decided on a 3-5-2 -- or, as he insisted, a 3-4-3. The team hadn't played that formation in a long time and looked uncomfortable and confused in their assignments; the U.S. could have been down 3-0 in the early stages of the match. (The sight of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones running over to Klinsmann and reportedly pleading with him to revert to a 4-4-2 midway through the first half says everything you need to know about their feelings.)
That's just one game, of course, but it's also part of a pattern: Klinsmann tinkers with the formation, trying to will his players to succeed in the roles that he thinks are best for them rather than understanding what he has and adapting his team sheet accordingly. How many times did we watch Jozy Altidore be overwhelmed and isolated as the lone forward before the coach finally gave him a strike partner? (Many times.)
The idea behind the 3-5-2/3-4-3 was to free up Christian Pulisic so the teenage phenom could attack the Mexican back line. That's not a bad impulse, because the rising Borussia Dortmund star has shown how effective he can be, and he is arguably the most dangerous U.S. player with the ball at his feet. (Let's give Klinsmann some credit for how smartly and efficiently he worked Pulisic into the first team.)
In Germany, however, Pulisic thrives not in the middle of the field where Klinsmann deployed him, but on the wing. Tilting your formation to suit your strongest attacker isn't wrong; what was wrong was how the coach did so. He took what should be a strength and managed to decrease its potential effectiveness.
Playing players out of position isn't a bug; it's a feature of the Klinsmann era. It's Geoff Cameron at right-back, Matt Besler at left-back, Pulisic in the middle, Michael Bradley yo-yoing around the field, and so on. Again, the coach gets an idea of how his team and his players should play and deploys them where he sees fit. He thinks they'll respond. Whether they do or don't is beside the point; Klinsmann raises the degree of difficulty unnecessarily. International soccer is hard enough when you're not constantly addressing what appear to be self-inflicted wounds.
In many ways, Klinsmann treats the U.S. team like a club squad. If a coach has the luxury of time and more than a couple training sessions every few months, he could work to get his players comfortable in multiple formations and develop understanding between different sets of guys. But the U.S. isn't a club side. With a national team, players need to come into camp understanding their role, what's expected of them and where they will be playing. More often than not, Klinsmann's team fails that test. That's on the coach and no one else.
Despite the brutal results of the past six days, the world of American soccer is not crumbling around us. The U.S. doesn't play another World Cup qualifier until March 2017, when they host Honduras and then travel to Panama. That's plenty of time to fix what ails the squad. (Don't overlook the impact of injuries, either. These last two games arguably end differently if Cameron replaces Omar Gonzalez in the starting lineup.)
However, whether Klinsmann is the man to lead them forward is more of an issue now than it's ever been. Gulati knows exactly what he has in the coach he spent so long recruiting. One of the strengths of the U.S. team has been that they stick with a manager, letting the team rebound rather than jettisoning the head man at the first or second sign of struggle. There's value in that stability.
But another strength of the best American coaches is that they've turned the red, white and blue into more than the sum of their parts. It's impossible to say that's been true of Klinsmann.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.