It had been the sole subject of conjecture ever since the World Cup qualification defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica, but there was still a surreality to US Soccer’s decision to fire Jurgen Klinsmann as national team head coach and technical director on Monday. In the job for five years the German is no longer in his position.
Sunil Gulati made the call, putting his own reputation on the line in order to do as so many fans wanted him to do, but never thought he would. The US Soccer president’s fate was intertwined with that of Klinsmann and so he too will come in for scrutiny over the next few days and weeks as the American national team mulls on its stalling World Cup qualification efforts.
Klinsmann had to go. While US fans are comfortable in their role as underdog, when it comes to major tournaments they expect their national team to be bullies in CONCACAF. Instead, the US has struggled to impose itself on the region, reflected in more than one dismal result against lesser teams over the past two years. The 4-0 humbling in Costa Rica was one humbling too many.
Of course, there were good times under Klinsmann. The USA performed above expectations at the 2014 World Cup, making it out of the so-called Group of Death and only losing out to Belgium in the round of 16 in extra time. 2013 was a successful year, with the US putting together a record 13-game winning streak and claiming friendly wins against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy and Germany, as well as Netherlands in 2015.
“Many are aware of the historic victories, including leading us out of the Group of Death to the Round of 16 in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but there were also lesser publicised efforts behind the scenes,” Gulati said in the statement released upon the announcement of Klinsmann’s dismissal on Monday.
“He challenged everyone in the US Soccer community to think about things in new ways, and thanks to his efforts we have grown as an organisation and expect there will be benefits from his work for years to come.”
Indeed, Klinsmann did challenge American soccer, a little too much in hindsight. Even in the days before his firing the German put himself on a higher pedestal to others in the Stateside game, speaking of those who “don’t understand soccer.” That was a tact he took more than once, blaming the criticism he faced on fans and the like who, as he saw it, didn’t have the same knowledge of the sport as him.
That understandably rubbed up people the wrong way and so when results started to turn against him, Klinsmann had very little to fall back on. He was hired to lead a technical progression of American soccer, reflected in his appointment as the country’s technical director, and yet the national team has instead regressed in the five years he was in charge for. There was no case for keeping him.
Now Bruce Arena is expected to take over, with the 65-year-old set to return to the role he held for eight years between 1998 and 2006. Unlike Klinsmann, he is a results man, rather than a project leader, and will be focussed on recovering the US’s qualification campaign. They have ground to make up if they are to make it to Russia.
Perhaps more so than for any other country, the USA cannot afford to miss out on the 2018 World Cup. The growth and development of soccer in the States depends on making the step up on to that stage every four years. Without it, the impact on the game could be profound.
The USA still stand a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup, despite losing their opening two fixtures of the Hexagonal. That is the margin of effort CONCACAF qualification leaves, but the decision to fire Klinsmann was about more than just making it to Russia. It was about the direction soccer is taking Stateside. Now they might finally move forward again.