Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Klinsmann Is The Wrong Choice

The replacement of Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann was inevitable. Gulati always wanted him to be the coach and as soon as Bradley faltered, it was clear he would be shown the door. The obvious recent comparison is Hodgson at Liverpool, who always had Dallish looking over his shoulder waiting to jump in. In that sense, it was good to finally get the transition over, as it is hard for anyone in Bradley's position to do well. That said, I think this is an incredibly stupid move by Sunil Gulati and will not help the U.S. Men's National Team in either the short or long term.

In order to evaluate the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as the U.S. Men's National Team Coach, we need to be clear on what exactly the position entails. The coach of the national team has two main duties: to select the squad and coach the squad. As this article makes clear, Klinsmann says nothing about how he will do better in performing either of these duties and focuses instead on a duty he does not have: youth development. Youth development is not under the purview of the National Team Coach, it is instead under the direction of the Youth Technical Director, a separate position currently held by Claudio Reyna. The coach's job is to do what he can with the players he has, not to train new players. If he wanted to do the latter, he should have gotten a different job.

Moreover, youth development in the U.S. is already going through a sea change without Klinsmann. The development of youth academies by MLS clubs and less of a reliance on college players was done without his direction. Some have complained about the lack of diversity among the US team, but the under-17 team this year was loaded with African-American and Hispanic players. The shift away from the predominantly white college grads has already started; hiring Klinsmann will do little to change that. In fact, the only specific policy change he mentions in the above link, other than a vague plan to "improve the grass-roots level", is the development of MLS academies, something which has already happened.

Aside from a stated focus on youth development, what else does Klinsmann bring to the table? Managerial experience? He has had a grand total of two coaching jobs: Germany and Bayern Munich. Fans of Klinsmann like to point out his excellent job coaching Germany to a 3rd place finish in the World Cup, but there are some qualifications there. First, it was in Germany and home-field advantage does a lot (see South Korea, 2002). Second, according to all accounts, Joachim Low (his then-assistant) was in charge of tactics and selection. Low has since become the Germany coach (Klinsmann left after the 2006 World Cup) and gone on to record a second-place finish at the 2008 Euros and a third-place finish at the 2010 World Cup. Klinsmann went to coach Bayern Munich, the richest and best-supported club in Germany, and failed to make the Champions League, something Bayern had regularly done, resulting in his firing before the end of his first season. Since then, he has not had a coaching job for two years. Nothing in his resume suggests that he is that good of a coach.

Some might rightly point out that it is not just a matter of how good or bad Klinsmann is, we instead need to look at him relative to who he is replacing. There is a large contingent of U.S. soccer fans that argue that Bob Bradley was a bad coach and needed to be replaced; Klinsmann naturally represents a step forward. I disagree strongly with this assessment. People seem to forget Bradley's tenure had many accomplishments, including making the final of the Confederations Cup (beating Spain on the way), winning our group over England in the 2010 World Cup, and a victory in the 2007 Gold Cup. Instead, the focus has been on the few negatives, the loss to Ghana (in extra time, remember) and the recent loss to Mexico (though we were 2-0 up before the injury to Cherundolo). Based on the overall record of results, there is little doubt that Bradley's tenure was one of the most successful in our history. There is a reason that his contract was extended and that Fulham and Aston Villa were considering him for their managerial positions. People complain about Bradley's substitutions and tactics, but those are exactly the kind of things that will NOT be better under Klinsmann.

The other question to consider is why now? After all, Bradley had his contract recently extended. Klinsmann has been out of work for a while. This appointment could have been made any number of times in the past year. What specifically has changed that makes this appointment so urgent? Were other candidates even looked at? The manner of the appointment is almost more baffling than the appointment himself.

Despite my pessimism on the appointment, I am confident the national team will improve, if only because the talent level will improve. The U.S. is still a growing soccer power, no matter who coaches the national team. Frankly, Klinsmann was very smart to take the job as he will get the plaudits for being in charge during an upward trend he has little to do with (known as the anti-Barack Obama effect). I just see no need to appoint a coach with such a poor record and fire one with such a good one.

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