Tuesday, October 13, 2015

On Klinsmann: Feeling Cooler Heads With a Phrenologist’s Fine Hand

I sense...resistance to a certain line of thinking...
A couple good and wise posts went up earlier today. One sought to place Jurgen Klinsmann's tenure in a...let's go with a more grounded context, while the other clocked the tenor of broad, hysterically seething national outrage directed at Dear Jurgen and declared it...let's go with excessive.

For those new to this space, I have, in the past, joined the aforementioned chorus of "broad, hysterically seething national outrage"; it's possible that, in the past, I have blamed Klinsmann for everything from the most recent U.S. Men's National Team loss, through a minimum of two forms of cancer (yep, prostate; that's on him), and up to a general sense that, dang it, things just ain't what they used to be. Apple pie has tasted like straight-up shit for years, I tell you.

With that in mind, I just want to say: they're right. I tweeted both posts because both Will Parchman (first link above) and Wes Burdine (second link) offered strong arguments as to why we should all just calm the hell down. And, as both authors pointed out, that is not the same thing as not wanting Klinsmann gone. And I still want Klinsmann gone (and, frankly, I don't get the argument that Klinsmann swallowing a demotion to the role of technical director alone is a blow his ego couldn't sustain, because ego slightly bigger than Montana; pretty sure he can take it; yes, yes, but would he? Do you honestly think I care?).

Call those posts a welcome corrective, then, not unlike a friend calmly telling you to walk away from that dude who said something about your mom (really, dad? To mom? Jesus). With this post, I intend to walk through their points with two main thoughts in mind: 1) to attempt to explain just why Klinsmann pisses everyone off so very, very much (which is to Burdine's point); and 2) to take a stab at assessing where the U.S. Men are right now (which is, somewhat, to Parchman's) with the World Cup qualification cycle just about one month into the future.

We Got Bad Blood

"In effect, Klinsmann is the canary in the mine, telling us there is toxicity in the air and to evacuate before we keel. That is its own benefit, to be sure, but it isn't the root cause of the problem. In thinking Klinsmann is either the savior or the apocalyptic death head, we have played into a game of self-importance that I doubt Klinsmann initially intended."
Here's the funny thing: the quotes I'm borrowing come from the opposite article. Regardless, Parchman absolutely nails the defining issue of the Klinsmann Regime. He was both hired and paid like one of those superlatively expensive consultants who will be the keynote speaker at your next, barely endurable corporate retreat. He will show up, give awful speeches, talk to you at the exact moment you'd rather talk to anyone but him, and it will all end with you carrying on at your job exactly as you did before a weekend of walking on fire and eating shitty hors d'oeuvres.

To turn the conversation back to Parchman's piece, he brought up Klinsmann's knowledge of highest level (Europe) and what it takes to hang with the biggest silverbacks in the global soccer jungle. This is why Klinsmann harps on getting American players to Europe, and the Champions League, specifically; it's why Parchman trotted out Klinsmann's quote about the Brazil game – e.g. the thing about Brazilians being two beats ahead on decisions and god-knows-how much further ahead technically (an idea that torments and occupies me more than I can fully explain). There's nothing wrong with the overarching point, at least beyond the reality that it bringing it up again and again is not at all different than magical thinking. American players aren't in Europe because, by quality or choice (likely the former), they are not in Europe. In the meantime, and as pointed out at the tail-end of a fairly solid Backheel podcast, MLS has some players who could make a difference*.

(* Don't want to dwell on this forever, but there's an obvious counter-argument here: these MLS players present as solid options precisely because they're playing in MLS – e.g. at a lower level - and they're therefore playing the game at that slower speed.)

Parchman does a bang-up job of describing the problem and, right along with the rest of us pundits, amateur and professional, he acknowledges The Great Big Truth that lurks deep in the ventricles of everything – e.g. the broad picture won't brighten for a long, long time. American soccer has made up ground, arguably on numbers alone; that's to say, we can throw thousands of bodies at the problem, even millions, but we lose out on intensity to every single, genuinely soccer-loving nation on the planet, places where soccer is the first and second love. Soccer might be hotter than ever in the States, MLS is making strides (shut up, it is) and all the academies teams around the league have set up will one day bear great-legged, silky-footed fruit, but the process will be evolutionary, not immediate. In terms of your life and mine, that translates into shit-tons of time, as in, not-in-our-lifetime time...

...and, for the record, I have long believed that the U.S. Men could maybe possibly win a World Cup in my lifetime. Ah, The Dream, she's fading fast...

The point of all the above, and of Parchman's article in the end, is that, while Klinsmann's assessment of the problem was pretty goddamn accurate – e.g. the whole "upside-down pyramid" thing – fixing said problem can't run on the same timetable as Klinsmann's tenure, no matter how long it turned (or turns) out to be. And, as Parchman implies in the quote above, that's the original sin of the sales job. But the thing people miss when they defend Klinsmann is his total inability to speak to that reality in a way that doesn't come off as him saying, "it's totally not my fault that these guys suck." And that brings us to Klinsmann's original sin.

Progress, and Its Discontents
"The central problem with discussing Klinsmann is that it's all based on the shifting sand of expectations. The word ‘progress’ gets bandied about. ‘Have we progressed since he took over?’ Well, what the hell does that mean?...Progress on the pitch (in terms of adopting a more possession-based and tactically nuanced style) is a little better. You can institute a system that breeds certain kinds of players, but that doesn't mean after two years Kyle Beckerman is suddenly Xavi. Kyle Beckerman remains one of the best holding midfielders in the US squad, but his limitations are also limitations for the team tactically...”
That's from Burdine’s piece, but it hits at a central failing of Klinsmann's coaching tenure. In more than a few ways, Klinsmann's time with the U.S. Men hits really close to home for Portland Timbers fans, in that it follows the idealism-to-pragmatism arc of the Timbers head coach, Caleb Porter. As I argued in my knee-jerk post after the loss to Mexico, the U.S. has rarely looked comfortable playing under Klinsmann. From the beginning, U.S. players during the Klinsmann years played as if wearing cleats two sizes too large; I can't think of a game where a sort of clumsy uncertainty didn't feature, whether it was something simple as playing the ball out of the back or getting it to where the U.S. could do some damage.

I like to think that the discomfort, the early stuff in particular, happened when Klinsmann encouraged American players to think their way out of tight situations. The players failed that test, whether in reality or in Klinsmann’s estimation, some time before the 2014 World Cup. The shift to pragmatism has been slow and steady, but it hit a kind of shitty nadir somewhere between the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF Cup, and today (see: Loss to Costa Rica). Porter followed a similar arc and, to some (me included), this hasn't brought anything to the table but confusion and doubt.

There is a horrible, difficult tension in soccer between playing aspirational (long-term) and playing for results (short-term). It's here where the entire discussion bogs down into an ungodly mess that I don't think anyone – that's players, coaches, administrators, and even fans – wants to confront, never mind clean up, and I'm going to put this in all caps because I believe it's that important: NO ONE KNOWS THE REAL STATE OF THE U.S. NATIONAL TEAM TALENT POOL OR ITS POTENTIAL, BECAUSE THAT SHIT IS ESSENTIALLY UNKNOWABLE. The point here is that, there is no countervailing body of evidence, no separate historical timeline that reveals some kind of "truth" about where U.S. Soccer is right now. All we know is the history we have, basically, and there's no real way to discern whether what's ailing U.S. Soccer right now results from Klinsmann's "shitty coaching" or from the developmental gap described above. To put that in clearer terms, for every Alexi Lalas claiming that American players can absolutely compete against the best, there's a Klinsmann saying American players can't be shit till they get to Europe and hang in there at the highest level. Which, again, magical thinking.

All I have to offer going the other way is this: American players looked more assured under both Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena than they have under Klinsmann. To offer a tactical assumption, both Arena and Bradley appear to have offered some form of direction as to how to play out of the back. True, it was based on a counter-attacking approach to the game, and that's shitty, boring and all kinds of uninspiring (and that's something people tend to forget, e.g. how loathed Bradley was by the end of his time), but, fuck it, a dangerous counter keeps the other team at least somewhat honest. Under Klinsmann, the team has defaulted to an embittered version of the same, one that revolves around methods Klinsmann doesn't believe in and using players who he, frankly, has undercut in every post-game presser in one way or another for the past couple years. It's a vicious cycle, really, that assumes, and therefore reinforces, perceptions of incompetence. That is a recipe for hurt feelings and shitty results, not success. The argument here is that Klinsmann gave up, basically and petulantly. So, fuck that guy. Wait, no. Trying to soften the tone...I mean, I get that he's frustrated...so fuck Sunil Gulati for that contract extension/expansion. Dick. Dang it. Tone's wrong again...

So, to sum up and make complete peace with all of this, Klinsmann was held up as someone who could lead U.S. Soccer into the future; he was paid that way and, when he re-upped into an expanded portfolio, his contract and essential invulnerability communicated the same logic. Not even the best coach in the world had a real chance of living up to the promise of Klinsmann's hiring. And he's not the best coach in the world; he might not even be a good one. He's an asshole besides. Just a complete asshole. "I'm not here to be liked," he says. No, but it could have helped, because what is doing a middling job at two things besides fucking up twice over? On reflection, the whole thing was doomed from the start.

And, good lord willing, this will be the last time I write about Klinsmann, specifically. May the rest of my U.S. Men’s posts focus on results. And, ideally, making it to Russia 2018.

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