As the United States heads into critical World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico, several players are expressing concern and asking questions about coach Jurgen Klinsmann's leadership skills and whether he is fit for the U.S. national team's top job, the Sporting News reported on its website Tuesday.
Eleven players in the current national team pool as well as others connected to the program told the Sporting News that there are deep divisions within the squad, especially between the German-American players Klinsmann has brought in, and those with deeper domestic roots. More troubling for U.S. team followers, the faith in Klinsmann's methods and tactical acumen is rapidly eroding.
One player cited in the story said the support for Klinsmann has been steadily dropping for months now as more question his leadership skills, but player sniping has become even more pronounced in the wake of the team's 2-1 loss at Honduras on Feb. 6.
"Several things about the lineup didn't work," one of the players told The Sporting News about the Americans' lackluster World Cup qualifying loss . "Sometimes a coach's biggest mistake is trying to get in who he sees as the best 11 players on the field. But they don't have to be. You have to have 11 players on the field who are going to work well with each other and be good for each other."
The level of detail and broad spectrum of criticisms in the report suggest that Klinsmann is facing widespread discord in the locker room and must address that split if he is to overcome the significant injury obstacles facing the team ahead of the upcoming qualifiers. Nine players who were on the roster for last month's loss to Honduras are unavailable through injury or illness and Landon Donovan remains on sabbatical.
Klinsmann's decision to bench long-time captain Carlos Bocanegra in Honduras reportedly raised the hackles of several players, who said it left the U.S. lacking experience in the backline and exposed what they described as Klinsmann's pretty naive tactics.
"It was one of those things where Jurgen woke up the next day and wanted to try something we weren't familiar with," the Sporting News quoted a player as saying.
But, the gripes with Klinsmann go even deeper than dropping Bocanegra after 100 international appearances, with one source saying that Klinsmann may be putting too much of an emphasis on fitness and yoga and not enough on tactics.
"OK, it's good for us and it's scientifically proven. But in the end it's a round ball. The Peles and the Maradonas in the world weren't doing all these things," a U.S. player said. "I think we spend more time worrying about gyms and nutrition, and we don't do enough of what we need to do on the field."
Another source told The Sporting News that the players are "overtrained and undercoached."
Klinsmann, for his part, downplayed any rifts with his players and insisted that he remains in control of the team, saying that the critical questions are a natural outgrowth of what he described as his attempt to shake the U.S. out of its tried-and-true lineups and player-development doldrums.
"This is what we're trying to tell them. This is what we're trying to introduce to them. They're challenged," he said. "Some guys are out of their comfort zone, absolutely. It's not actually the coach that has to adjust to the players, to kind of think about it, 'How do I communicate it perfectly (and) correctly to the players?' "It's actually the players' job to take the information from the coach, with whatever personality the coach has and let it kind of sink into his own system. ... Now, I have to implement it in my own way. It's a learning process, and that's fine.
"It's never going to happen if you don't start doing it."
One player said Klinsmann might do better to take greater charge of the team's tactical preparation and do more specific training drills because taking a let-them-play approach with players doesn't always work.
"Bob was better at getting his message across. There was more of an identity," a player said, referring to former coach Bob Bradley. "We're still coming to terms with that (under Klinsmann). ... Sometimes the message they're trying to get across isn't relayed the best, or as players we don't apply it. It's just different."
When one source was asked whether it bothered him that Klinsmann's tactical formations don't always succeed in allowing his squad to damage opponents and play to its strengths, he did not mince words.
"They want us to play the beautiful game, but we're not a technical team like the Germans. We're not Spain or Brazil," the player told the Sporting News. "What we're good at is we work hard, we fight and we compete. We have great athletes and we're a good counterattacking team. Maybe we need to go back to what we're good at."
Klinsmann joined the U.S. on a three-year contract in 2011 and has vowed to improve the national team and figure out how to mold future American stars, not manage current ones.
Klinsmann won a World Cup title as a player and starred for elite European clubs, then coached Germany to a third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup.
Information from ESPNFC reporter Jeff Carlisle and The Associated Press was used in this report.