Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Boy Who Cried Jurgen Klinsmann Should be Fired

This piece is not about Jurgen Klinsmann being fired and getting replaced by Bruce Arena. It's not about his tactics, or his ego and aura of haughty supremacy and holier-than-thou attitude towards his own mistakes. This is about how we as US Soccer fans and media have turned Klinsmann into something he's not: a pantomime villain.

Maybe that characterization is a bit harsh, because Klinsmann did take the US forward in many respects, especially the player pool. But since the 2014 World Cup, performances have been sliding downward, however that doesn't tell the entire story. In Klinsmann's early days, his teams were on the precipice of disaster multiple times, including a qualifying loss at Jamaica in 2012, and that infamous February day in 2013; one that Timmy Chandler wishes everyone forgot. And there still is that Brian Straus piece lying around on the internet that shows not everything was great even at the beginning. But like Rasputin, nothing could kill Klinsmann off because he got the major results when he needed to and kept his job and the team in order.

But after that, every time Klinsmann was put under the microscope, he failed his tests. From the abject horror of the 2015 Gold Cup, to the embarrassment against Brazil not even a month later, and then the CONCACAF Cup disappointment against Mexico, he wasn't able to keep the sugar out. And when he failed, often spectacularly, no one could hide their disdain or willingness to send Klinsmann out. And that is what we're going to talk about here: the legitimate claims of something being wrong yet shrouded by the instant calls for Klinsmann to be sacked.

Of course sacking managers in soccer is nothing novel or new, especially in the international game. Managers are interchanged as often as toothpicks. But there was something about the calls for Klinsmann to be fired after every little mistake in every single game, especially in the big games, that seemed different and excessive. This again is not meant to defend Klinsmann from the criticism he absolutely deserved, but the immediate calls to sack him certainly didn't make the atmosphere around his team any better, especially when the bad results started to stack up.

And what's strange about this phenomenon is it only started after the World Cup. Perhaps, weirdly enough, he doesn't get enough criticism for his team's set-up against Belgium, which required Tim Howard to be Superman in order to just keep the US in the game. And yet they were not too far away from heading to penalties with that Golden Generation. But the honeymoon ended quickly after that game and during the Gold Cup of 2015, every mistake tactically or otherwise was foist upon Klinsmann's head.

He was certainly given more slack privately than Bob Bradley did for similar sins, largely because of the new contract Sunil Gulati handed him, but in the court of public opinion he was fired at least five times for his many tactical failings before he was actually fired. So by the time when he committed the sins that actually caused his downfall, the mob had already figuratively drawn and quartered the man, even though there were legitimate complaints well before the Mexico and Costa Rica games.

Did Klinsmann deserve the criticism he had been given for his many failings? Yes, unquestionably. But since every one of those sins was a fatal offense in the eyes of many, whether they actually were or not (and some certainly were), the analysis of him as a manager and even technical director suddenly became about the fact he should have already been fired even before a ball had been kicked in his next test.

Now that he has been sacked, the question will be whether Bruce Arena is held to a similar standard. He has far less margin for error, but in many ways is more respected than Klinsmann, so how his early results will be judged is a fascinating test to see whether the standards shift for different managers. In theory they shouldn't. But if the US fails to qualify for Russia, will we see opinions such as "Arena couldn't do much with what Klinsmann left him" in full bloom?

This piece is essentially about the opinions of opinions, which is plenty meta, but important to understand how US soccer fans and media view themselves, their national team and how the sport has grown in this country. In many ways we've caught up to the rest of the world now, with the almost daily insistence that Jurgen Klinsmann be fired the final step in our evolution.

But the next question is whether future managers are held to that standard, tactics and otherwise aside. Standards shift and change based on the times, but should they? When the goal is beyond just making the World Cup, maybe not.

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