Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Jurgen Klinsmann: Reassessment of a Reassessment

"the 10% that are unimpressed need to go be Germany fans because they will never be happy otherwise."
- Ryan Larkin (@Larkin8), a tweet.
If Jurgen Klinsmann cured cancer, I don't think I would congratulate him. It's likelier, probable, actually, that I would just list all the ways that he could have done it better. I lead with Mr. Larkin's tweet, then, to acknowledge...let's call it "Klinsmann Derangement Syndrome," as well as the possibility that I suffer from an acute case.

By end of day Saturday, the U.S. topped Group A in the Copa America Centenario. I did not see this coming. Getting out of the group seemed reasonable, but, for a fan-base conditioned to it by the 2015 Gold Cup, the 2015 CONCACAF Cup, and a rocky start to 2018 World Cup Qualifying, failure presented as a plausible option. The team has Ecuador next and, in a happy change, thoughts of a win and a trip to the Copa semifinals doesn't feel like fans smiling affirmations to themselves in a mirror from inside a burning house.

Mood swings of that magnitude make sense. Whether this it's accurate or just an effect of living it in the here and now, the Klinsmann era seems like the most contentious in U.S. Soccer history. The question of if and whether the U.S. Men's National Team programs are progressing at all, never mind as advertised, hasn't cooled off since the 2014 World Cup. Bad results in games that mattered kept discontent at a boil, but identifying the origins of the problems divided U.S. fans into two broad* camps (* yes, I think I'm squeezing out some nuance): one group of fans blamed those terrible results on the U.S. talent pool, while the other dropped the blame and a shit-ton of grief on Klinsmann.

As alluded to in the first paragraph, I fall firmly into the latter camp. The rest of this post speaks from within the assumptions of that ideological tribe, but the U.S.'s performance over the first round of the Copa got me thinking about the other argument, maybe opened my mind to the logic of it. For all that, this whole thing ends with a sucker punch, which only goes to prove that derangement is as derangement does. (Which means...what?)

Whether by post or podcast, one of my complaints about Klinsmann should stand out...well, two of them, actually, with the one just recalled boiling down to me thinking that he is a posi-core prick and a high-rent, low-stakes snake-oil salesman, but that's neither here nor there to the task at hand. No, my primary frustration with Klinsmann, the coach (as opposed to the man; see above), centers on his endless tinkering with line-ups, personnel, playing good players in bad positions for reasons that feel arbitrary as the roll of a six-sided die, only with Klinsmann's arrogance working as some kind of dipshit bonus-multiplier that can get a 7 or a -2 on the roll of a six-sided die (go figure, not possible, etc.). In fewer words, Klinsmann pisses me off because he never stopped tinkering, and all that tinkering led to, first, befuddlement, second, to bad results. (And, yes, after transparently boning it, Klinsmann had the gall to point fingers at everyone but himself, but, digressing...it's a personal problem, clearly.)

It's here where that other idea, the one about the limits of the U.S. player pool, pushes past the (or my) anger at Klinsmann as person and re-introduces itself. What if those three consecutive starting line-ups in the Copa – starting elevens defined by their essential conservatism, and a clear reliance of older players in key roles – what if that's Klinsmann giving up? What if that's him finally admitting that he has found all the players he can find and that, yes, the U.S. is an essentially athletic team that relies on counter-attacking and set-pieces, that it’s a team that really can't play out of the back, and so on?

Say Klinsmann finally did give up? How do you feel now? Better or worse?

However he arrived at it, and for whatever reason – and this goes on the permanent record – I'm fine with where Klinsmann ended up this tournament. Here, I'm going to paraphrase/echo Dan Savage (yeah, that guy) with regard to something he said about Hillary Clinton and gay marriage: if you yell at someone to change their mind, and they finally do it, you don't yell at them for taking too goddamn long; you appreciate that they changed their mind.

This tournament saw Klinsmann select a team and finally give it some goddamn repetitions, especially and crucially, in defense. He pulled Michael Bradley back to his best role, too (e.g., covering the back four and distributing from deep), and, with Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, he constructed the rock on which the U.S. team has built its success so far in the Copa. The U.S. Men aren't pretty – even in the 4-0 rout of Costa Rica, luck kissed at least two of the four goals – but they’re set up to be a good tournament team: hard to score against and able to pick up at least one goal when they need it. While the formula absolutely relies on the U.S. attacking players doing something, it doesn't ask for consistency, so much as just...enough...or, in a name, Gyasi Zardes.

I pick on Zardes often, even crap on him sometimes, but his set-up for Clint Dempsey's decider against Paraguay deserves real praise. Why? Because that's all the U.S. needs so long as it's defensively sound as a team. And, in this tournament, they have been. A lot of credit belongs to Cameron, who Klinsmann has finally (a word that's italicized a lot in there, yeah?) decided to start, but there's a bit of luck in there, too – e.g. Brooks' abruptly assuring development with his club team. I don't watch him outside U.S. games (and, because I rarely catch friendlies, even that's rare), but the most visible difference between the U.S. in 2016 and the U.S. in 2015 is simple: the defense knows what the fuck it's doing. That's it. I don't know why it's happened – maybe it's just a sound partnership (and maybe it'll go poof tomorrow?) - but it's not down to the level of competition getting lower.

The essence of this post, then, is surrender. It's admitting that, at least on the international stage (and maybe all over), U.S. players simply aren't ready to play pretty stuff. Strong, athletic and, more importantly, effective: yeah, I think the U.S. can do that. Klinsmann doesn't deserve credit for that. Even if the individual players are better (are they? not sure; also, not provable, so moving on), the U.S. plays pretty much the same game, leans on the same tactics, etc. We'll only know if those same tactics with this updated/improved(?) personnel makes the U.S. better or worse in Russia 2018...assuming their goons don't fall upon our team and further complicate the process (and, what a pack of assholes! This is on you, Putin!!).

So, no, I don't think Klinsmann advanced the U.S. program. And, yeah, I'm a little bitter about that, not because he didn't do it, failure happens, but because he was given two World Cup cycles to try it, and without material signs of progress and, yes, he was an asshole for a lot of it...but, yeah, forwards are assholes, it's a big part of what makes them forwards...apologies to any forwards reading this post...you're my second favorite class of players, honest. Well, third. No, fourth. I digress...my point is that, once you shift your frame from the U.S. program improving and focus on just surviving/thriving in Russia 2018, things become clearer. It's results time, right, so do what you gotta do. Even and up to going practical, even if it feels like embracing stagnation. Because, till Klinsmann's gone, what's your option?

To credit Klinsmann (perhaps a first; judge for yourself), I do believe that Klinsmann tried. Maybe he tried too hard – by which I mean fielding different line-ups in every fucking game (as if that's how you won the competition), forcing Bradley higher on the field than his performance takes him, trying other guys in novel positions and for too little time to matter, constantly churning players, finding a new player in Germany's lower divisions and passing on promising MLS prospects (yes, they do exist), pick your own gripe for they are legion, etc. etc. etc. – but maybe that's what I missed in all this. Klinsmann tried. He was looking for new ways to make the U.S. team do all the things he dreamed it could do...if completely detached from the personnel on hand. Whatever. That pissed me off...maybe more than it should.

The U.S. has the player pool it has. It’s not great, but it is good. It’s also improving. I've said all that before, if in sublty different ways. Anyway, my only knock on Klinsmann, at least at this point, is that he approached the project wrong. I think he went searching for short cuts (some great, as yet unearthed player with just enough American in 'em) when what he really needed to do was roll up his sleeves and produce the best players out of the personnel he had – and that while still looking for new blood...just, y'know, flip the emphasis. He's doing that now, or at least it looks like he is. I still have quibbles...but today feels better than yesterday. Even before I know what happens in the quarterfinals...

...it's nice to see a U.S. team look like a U.S. team. #Merica! And, with that, I'm off for a couple weeks. Putting this, and all other spaces (outside twitter), to sleep.

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