Jurgen Klinsmann's excuses the final straw for U.S. soccer chiefs
More than the ugly losses, more than the constant tinkering, more than the clear lack of progress or identity or even the danger of missing out on the 2018 World Cup in Russia, what finally sealed Jurgen Klinsmann's dismissal may have been his mouth.
We'll know more about the reasoning on Tuesday, when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati speaks to reporters about his decision, announced on Monday, to fire Klinsmann after more than five years as coach of the national team.
The move was a long time coming. As ESPN FC reported last week, Gulati and the USSF had been considering alternatives to the former Germany striker for at least a year, and Klinsmann came close to getting the axe on at least two other occasions over the past 12 months, according to multiple sources.
Results were only part of it. As frustrated as Gulati had grown over the team's poor performances in the 18 months that followed a respectable showing at the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann's public excuse-making also grated on the USSF chief.
Over the weekend, Klinsmann, in interviews with Reuters and the New York Times, roundly dismissed the deserved criticism that followed World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica earlier this month by questioning his detractors' knowledge of the sport. The Times reported on Monday that Gulati and Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer's CEO, made their minds up to pull the plug on Klinsmann on Sunday night. But the trouble started almost as soon as he was hired.
Klinsmann took the job in July of 2011. He commenced his first camp days later, before the U.S. was to play Mexico in a friendly in Philadelphia, but he immediately rubbed senior players the wrong way by insisting that they not wear their usual numbers, which had been determined by seniority under previous manager Bob Bradley, but rather ones corresponding to their position on the field.
That experiment lasted only until the end of the year, but Klinsmann continued to confound players with his unorthodox approach. The first public backlash came with Brian Straus' explosive 2013 Sporting News story that quoted anonymous players questioning Klinsmann's leadership, methods and tactical acumen -- issues that plagued the coach until the bitter end.
Yet the underlying structural problems were largely swept under the rug, as the U.S. went on a 13-game winning streak later that year, ultimately finishing atop the final round of World Cup qualifying for the third consecutive cycle.
Gulati signed Klinsmann to a four-year contract extension before 2013 was over, but it didn't take long for the relationship to fray from there. It's safe to say Gulati did not agree with Klinsmann's decision to cut all-time scoring leader Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup team -- a move that also annoyed fans, sponsors and many of Donovan's former teammates.
The U.S. advanced to the Round of 16 in Brazil against the odds without Donovan, but quickly regressed in 2015. Any good feelings after friendly wins against Germany and Netherlands were quickly extinguished by a dismal fourth-place showing at the Gold Cup, which was followed a few months later by a loss to Mexico with a spot in the Confederations Cup on the line. Earlier the same day, the U.S. under-23s had failed to qualify for the Olympics.
Klinsmann explained away the losses in public. In private, his excuses were even more bold; he told Gulati that he was convinced that the Gold Cup was fixed so Mexico would win, setting up the big-money playoff match against the U.S., a viewpoint that exasperated his boss.
It was around then that rumors began circulating that the USSF was prepared to jettison Klinsmann if the U.S. lost its last match of 2015, a year-ending qualifier on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. With Gulati in attendance in Port of Spain, the Americans managed a scoreless tie, and Klinsmann kept his job.
A defeat in Guatemala City in another qualifier in March of this year brought the heat back on, though, as did Klinsmann's comments after the Yanks dropped the opening game of the Copa America Centenario to Colombia.
With the second match of the tournament set for Chicago, Gulati met with reporters at U.S. Soccer's Windy City headquarters on the morning of the game and gave a strong rebuke of the team's long-term performance. But Klinsmann saved his job again by reeling off wins against Costa Rica, Paraguay and Ecuador, setting up a high-profile semifinal against Lionel Messi and Argentina. Despite a humiliating 4-0 loss, there were few major complaints when Gulati, as he typically does after a major tournament, began soliciting the opinions of senior players.
"The atmosphere and commentary from players was different than if we hadn't done as well," Gulati told reporters on Nov. 11, hours before the loss to Mexico. "It was far more positive, as you would expect."
Clearly, though, Gulati still had his doubts about Klinsmann's leadership. And, with the Americans facing now-crucial games against Honduras and Panama in March, the risk of potentially missing out on the World Cup -- which would be an unmitigated sporting, commercial and public relations disaster for U.S. Soccer -- was simply too great to ignore.
That it went so wrong has to be painful for Gulati. He chased Klinsmann for five years -- offering him the job in 2006 and again in 2010 -- before finally landing his man. At the time, it felt like a coup; the charismatic former World Cup-winning player was a longtime California resident who had reinvigorated the Germany national team. But Gulati also ignored the fact that Klinsmann's reputation in coaching circles had plummeted following a failed stint at Bayern Munich.
So with Klinsmann gone, where does the federation go from here? LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena is expected to be named as Klinsmann's replacement as early as Tuesday, according to multiple sources, although the contract was not signed as of late Monday night.
The choice may have been different had Klinsmann been let go over the summer (there were whispers of interest in Bradley and David Moyes, both of whom have since taken jobs in the Premier League, along with Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes), but it's a safe choice given the circumstances. Arena is the anti-Klinsmann in many ways, a curmudgeon with the media but renowned for his man-management skills and the loyalty he inspires in players. He has qualified the U.S. for World Cups twice before, leading the team to the quarterfinals in 2002 before being replaced by Bradley after Germany 2006.
The split was acrimonious, but he and Gulati seem to have patched things up over the past decade. And while Arena has never been known to hold his tongue, he will arrive with a clear plan and the ability to articulate it. After five years, that's no small victory for a program desperately in need of another voice.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.