First Touch

The USMNT Under Jurgen Klinsmann

It wasn’t so much the 2-0 loss on Friday in Guatemala to a Guatemalan team that is expected to put up a fight against the United States before graciously bowing out, or even indignantly and disrespectfully holding on for a draw against their superiors, that has put USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann into this position to potentially lose his job. The result in Guatemala City was just a symptom of the larger disease. 

USA players celebrate in front of Jurgen Klinsmann

Tim Hall’s View From 101

Yes, you can point to the fact that the Stars-And-Stripes hadn’t lost to Guatemala since Rain Man was in theaters. Sure, there’s the fact that Guatemala was ranked many dozens of places below the US in the last FIFA rankings.

And of course there’s the fact that Guatemala has never made the World Cup finals, whereas it’s now considered a birthright for the USMNT. A birthright that seems to be slipping out of our clutches.

None of that matters because this was never going to be a story about Guatemala, not really. They’ve played their part, but they are only characters, and if they weren’t available on the night the curtain went up for the first time, then Trinidad or Panama or Costa Rica would have been perfectly serviceable actors willing to step in and advance the story along.


What we’re really interested in, once the bit players and the props and the lighting are all agreed upon, is the story of the joint protagonists and antagonists, the United States Men’s National Team, and the role played in this drama by their manager.

To Jurgen Klinsmann’s credit, he’s turned in a virtuoso performance as all this has played out. Brought on as a savior, the man who could finally and blessedly lead the US over the hill that could not successfully be topped by Americans who had tried before. The man who would instill some good European values and techniques into the upstart Yanks, finally combining order and discipline to the wild-eyed but plucky Americans.

At this point in the film they would run a montage of the derelict skiers or the prisoners of the fat kids’ camp getting whipped into something approaching shape in preparation for their unlikely, last stand, winner-take-all battle against those snobby rich kids. Only Klinsmann was never the right coach for the job. To extend the metaphor, he’d take the kid that was the best at the obstacle course and put him in the pie eating competition.

Despite his own insistence in the aftermath of the loss to the Guatemalans that the German is “not playing anyone out of position,” he absolutely plays people out of position all the time, especially in defense.


He’s brought in dozens of players for a look-see at the national team level, but when it finally came time to settle on a lineup – or, at least, a shortened list of guys getting regular call-ups – the experimentation time never seemed to end.

Because of that, the USMNT is a team in name only. At times, like away to Guatemala, they appear to be eleven guys who were only introduced in the airport earlier that afternoon, handed a bag lunch and wished the best of luck. The result of that is what you would expect the result of that to be: a team bereft of creativity, desire, cohesion, imagination, guile, fortitude.

A team without an identity to themselves, and as such a team without a path forward for the fans to care about. It’s what we must imagine rooting for a perennial mid-table EPL team must be like. Barring a Leicester-like run, it’s the annual choice between 9th and 14th.

At some point, you beg to get relegated just to upset the apple cart and have a bit of excitement. And that’s where the US is now, with work to do even to get to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, having to scratch to avoid missing the World Cup for the first time in 30 years.

But then you’re reminded of all the good Jurgen Klinsmann has done here. Maybe not in terms of moving the program forward (which may not be his fault, since US Soccer has been spinning its wheels on the male side for some time now), but in terms of iconic moments and wins. Beating Italy away.


Beating Mexico in a friendly in Mexico City, and then returning for a qualifier and actually getting a point in Estadio Azteca. A win at home against Germany. Beating Ghana and escaping the Group of Death in Brazil. These moments themselves deserve a montage of their own, and preferably not part of the one that ends with a picture of Klinsmann looking off into the distance while the years 2011-2016 float under his chin.

All that is fitting, isn’t it? Because Jurgen Klinsmann is neither the hero nor the villain, and in this day and age, we don’t want either. We’re far more willing to accept shades of gray.

That’s why Batman is no longer the silly version being played by Adam West but the dark, gritty, sad, nuanced Ben Affleck type. There are no heroes, not really, just different levels of villainy. And there are no pure villains, at least no one thinks themselves the villain in their own story, just the misunderstood genius.

Of course, another old movie trope popped up when Guatemala visited the States Tuesday night: the governor called and granted Klinsmann a stay of execution in the form of a 4-0 win, a by-the-book affair that saw almost no one played out of position and everyone excelling at what they do best.

The Future

Klinsmann even got to show he does have an eye for the future, capping the dual-national 17 year old Christian Pulisic and tying him to the US just as he had done with Matt Miazga months earlier.

So, it appears that the short, punchy, formulaic 90 minute popcorn-fest for the German will instead turn into a three-hour epic, or even a seven-part series. Klinsmann seems sure to reprise his role for some time to come, certainly through this summer’s Copa America, and likely though at least this round of qualifying.

But, ultimately, however long the run time, the ending seems likely the same: a string of poor returns that inevitably force the plug to be pulled. The US Men’s program meets an unsure fate, neither the good guys nor the bad guys win, fade to black, roll credits. And since it seems to be all the rage, maybe they’ll get Idris Elba to play the US manager next time.

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