History repeating: Klinsmann and Eriksson’s time in Mexico


Broad strokes can paint an array of tenuous similarities between Sven-Goran Eriksson and Jurgen Klinsmann, men whose 16-year gap in age may be their least-compelling difference. Still, both have managed major European countries and are known for their affability. They’re media darlings who carry a cosmopolitan air that allows them to easily navigate different circles. The two even passed each other in the night at Sampdoria, Eriksson leaving for Lazio as Klinsmann arrived in 1997.

In 2008, Eriksson’s long managerial career took an unexpected turn when he began an ill-fated tenure as coach of the Mexican national team, a move that would eventually create another flimsy link between himself and the German icon. Three years later, Klinsmann was hired to overhaul CONCACAF’s other power, accepting the head coach’s role with the United States.

Since Klinsmann’s appointment, the parallels between him and Eriksson continue to grow, even if the vastly different worlds of American and Mexican soccer often make for clumsy comparisons. But given the striking similarities between the two coaches’ mandates, the follies of Eriksson’s 10-month tenure offer a number of lessons.

Eriksson’s eventual demise begged a question still relevant for Klinsmann: Can you overhaul a program and qualify out of CONCACAF for a World Cup? With Eriksson, Mexico didn’t wait to find out.

“The decision of the club directors was unanimous.” – Jorge Vergara, member, Mexican soccer federation (FMF) selection committee, announcing the hire of Sven Goran Eriksson1

At the time of his appointment, the 60-year-old Eriksson was still a hot coaching commodity, even if he’d just been harshly dismissed from Manchester City by then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra. The former Benfica, Lazio and England boss had guided Manchester City to ninth in the Premier League, a place in Europe (via fair play), and two derby wins over Manchester United. But a hot start that saw City take an early league lead was ultimately his undoing. Shinawatra cited a series of poor, end of season results as cause for termination, a bizarre euphemism for (what was then) City’s best Premier League points haul.

For the United States, landing Jurgen Klinsmann was a similar coup. Like Eriksson, he had his skeptics. The success of his Germany successor (Joachim Löw) has led to the meme that the former Nationalmannschaft boss was little more than a figurehead, an unfair assessment. Klinsmann is rightfully credited with leading Germany’s mid-oughts resurgence. Resuscitating the country’s youth system made him a perfect candidate for U.S. soccer. The highest profile coach the States had ever hired, Klinsmann represented a chance to start the country’s much-debated overhaul.

So it was that after a five-year courtship – with near elopements in 2006 and 2010 – the California native was announced as Bob Bradley’s replacement. One day shy of his 47th birthday, Klinsmann was back coaching. Three years after rival Mexico had swung for the fences with their own hire, the States had followed suit.

“This is not the time to hire a European coach .. if you do that, you are not thinking in soccer terms.” – Jared Borghetti, forward, Mexico2

“I don’t think I’d like to see 11 naturalized players in the national team.” – Guillermo Ochoa, goalkeeper, Mexico3

There was never going to be a good time for the FMF to hire a European coach. Bora Milutinovic was Serbian but had roots in Mexico, where he had resided for over a decade before being appointed national team manager in 1983. That connection allowed the future U.S. men’s coach to transcend the suspicions Mexican soccer fans hold toward Europeans, an attitude born of pride that sees no reason their futbol should bow to perceived European arrogance.

Initially Eriksson helped downplay their fears. He took hours of Spanish lessons each day, often giving interviews in the language, even when it didn’t help. “We’re at a level now to make life complicated for any team,” he said early on, assuaging concerns he’d subjugate Mexico.4

Those concerns returned with Eriksson’s naturalization policy. He aggressively sought to bring in talent from outside Mexico’s player pool, recalling Matias Vuoso, Lucas Ayala (both Argentine), Leandro Augusto and Antonio Naelson (Brazilians) for a 2009 friendly against his native Sweden. Whatever hope Eriksson had of winning over the Mexican public was lost when those players gained access to the tricolor.

Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t had to deal with such concerns. Having adopted the United States as his home, Klinsmann’s an established fixture in the country’s soccer, appearing in analyst roles on television and serving as an advisor to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. His biggest criticisms – an abhorrence of pay-to-play development, his desire to see the country’s soccer reflect its makeup – are shared by the average U.S. Soccer fan.

“I’ve been around a long time … I’ve been to very good schools in that way, Italy and England. I’m not worried about that.” – Eriksson2

“It’s a European style … Little by little he’s trying to implant it, but he’s respecting the essence of Mexican soccer, the way we play with the ball.” – Francisco Fonseca, forward, Mexico2

Klinsmann’s big point of deviation is style – playing and tactical. Under previous coaches, the United States had been reactive, approaches that allowed the team to leverage their athlete’s strengths while minimizing the their technical weaknesses. Hired with a platform to change the program, that’s necessarily had to change under Klinsmann. If Bob Bradley had adopted a style that compensated for the U.S.’s weaknesses, Klinsmann was going to face the challenge head on.

That challenge reached a climax last week, with Klinsmann nearly losing the fans the same way Eriksson lost Mexico’s. When Jozy Altidore was left out of his 24-man team, the U.S. soccer-following public reacted. Some supported leaving him out, but most reacted with wonder: How can the U.S. not call in their best goal scorer, somebody who was leading a European leave in goals?

On Friday, Klinsmann was two minutes away from the decision flying in his face. Had the States left Antigua with less than three points, Altidore would have become a red herring. He would have been the four South Americans Eriksson called up for Sweden. He would have symbolized the plot Klinsmann had lost, whether the details matched the narrative or not. Instead, when Alan Gordon crossed to Eddie Johnson, Klinsmann was vindicated, his two most emblems of change combining for a qualifier-winning goal.

The problems still exist, though. Just as Eriksson was able to navigate third round qualifying despite discord about his callups, Klinsmann has the U.S. on the verge of the hex, even if his changes have yet to take root. The U.S. often looks labored in attack, the team’s new approach yet to create a final-third mentality that will consistently produce goals.

“Jamaica are a tough team but we’re not scared of playing there … I’m not going to send out a team of battlers. We are not going for a war.” – Eriksson4

“We could not take risks with qualification for the World Cup, and we could not rely solely on results at the Estadio Azteca.” – Justino Compean, former FMF president5

“We told Mr. Eriksson that his term with the national team has finished.” – Compean5

On November 19, 2008, Mexico lost 1-0 in Honduras in third round qualifying, putting their 2010 World Cup hopes in Jamaica’s hands. The Reggae Boyz had kicked off one hour later in Kingston. A blowout win over Canada would give them Mexico’s spot in the Hex. Instead, their 3-0 win left them three behind on goal difference. Despite picking up only one point on the road, Mexico were through, and for the time being, Eriksson’s job was safe.

Opening The Hex with a Feb. 2009 loss in Columbus was disappointing, but road defeats to the United States weren’t something gets a CONCACAF coach fired. When Mexico beat Costa Rica the following month at Azteca, Eriksson was widely seen as having saved his job.

Four days later, he was gone. El Tri had lost 3-1 in Honduras, a demoralizing performance that saw the Catrachos up three before Mexico saved some face. The next day (Apr. 2), 10 months after Eriksson had been hired with unanimous approval from Mexico’s club presidents, he was dismissed. Former Atlético Madrid manger Javier Aguirre started his second tenure with Mexico two days later, eventually guiding El Tri to South Africa.

As much as Eriksson was fired because of poor results, the FMF took action because they didn’t have faith the results would improve. Winning at home with mixed results on the road could be tolerated if there is faith in the future, but the federation no longer believed in his project. Eriksson undermined his plan when we challenged Mexico’s culture and never did anything to correct course. That he didn’t seem to understand the challenges of CONCACAF (particularly on the road) forced Mexico to move on.

Like Eriksson, Klinsmann’s unlikely to change direction, but that doesn’t mean he’s destined for the same fate. Had Mexico shown improvement in the winter of ’09, Eriksson would have survived, but with the raised stakes of The Hex, the FMF couldn’t take any chances. A country with Mexico’s history couldn’t risk missing another World Cup.

With the U.S. in an identical position, Klinsmann needs to show the improvement Eriksson never found; else, we will find out if U.S. Soccer has more patience than the FMF. Given the close relationship between U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Klinsmann, it will be more difficult for the USSF to change course. By taking the chance of bringing in Klinsmann at Bradley’s expense, Gulati’s endorsed the massive changes to style and development. An unwillingness to accept the hiccups of third round qualifying would be hypocritical.

But like Mexico, it’s unconscionable for the United States to miss a World Cup. For competitive, developmental, and financial reasons, U.S. Soccer can’t be on the sidelines for Brazil 2014.

Klinsmann may be a completely different man than Eriksson, but if the U.S.’s third round struggles persist into The Hex, the parallels between the two men could continue to grow.

1 – http://www.cbc.ca/sports/soccer/story/2008/06/03/fifa-mexico-eriksson.html
2 – http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/11/sports/soccer/11soccer.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
3 – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-1124642/Sven-Goran-Eriksson-feels-heat-pick-Mex-controversy.html
4 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/3174596/Sven-Goran-Eriksson-fits-in-smoothly-down-Mexico-way-Football.html
5 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/internationals/7980392.stm

MLS Cup Playoffs: LA Galaxy 3-1 Real Salt Lake (video)

Los Angeles Galaxy defender Jelle Van Damme (37) congratulates forward Alan Gordon (9) for scoring against the Real Salt Lake during the first half of a knockout round MLS playoff soccer match in Carson, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The game in 100 words (or less): The LA Galaxy are through to the conference semifinals of the MLS Cup Playoffs, where they’ll take on the Colorado Rapids beginning Sunday, for the seventh time in eight years with a 3-1 knockout-round triumph over Real Salt Lake at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. Alan Gordon put the home side ahead inside the first quarter-hour before RSL drew level seven minutes later, but Emmanuel Boateng bagged a quickfire brace to complete a pair of brilliant individual exhibitions of dribbling inside the penalty area. With Steven Gerrard unavailable and Robbie Keane only fit to feature off the bench, Bruce Arena turned to Gordon, who gave way to Keane early in the second half after picking up an injury of his own, to play the fulcrum of the Galaxy attack, and it worked to near-perfection during the opening half-hour. Landon Donovan started the game and played 87 minutes, providing the kind of defensive work rate that’s been missing up and down the flanks of LA all season. Sebastian Lletget put in a near-flawless passing performance while playing deep in midfield. Don’t look now, but those are the Galaxy’s biggest question of 2016, all just about answered as the playoffs begin. I won’t say, “I told you so” if/when they win MLS Cup 2016, but…

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

14′ — Gordon finishes from close range for 1-0 — Landon Donovan -> Giovani dos Santos -> Alan Gordon. Just like Bruce Arena drew it up in preseason midseason last month this week this morning.

21′ — Plata converts from the spot after Morales’ dive — Javier Morales was angling for a penalty from the moment he entered the penalty area. All Emmanuel Boateng had to do was look at him, and Morales was going down.

26′ — Boateng weaves through to make it 2-1 — Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Boateng took advantage of some poor defending, and the Galaxy were back in the lead.

34′ — Boateng cuts inside, blows past his man, makes it 3-1 — There’s playing in top gear, and there’s having an extra gear that you rarely have to use because no one else on the field has it. Boateng falls into the latter category.

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Men of the match: Emmanuel Boateng

Goalscorers: Gordon (14′), Plata (21′), Boateng (26′, 34′)

MLS Cup Playoffs: Toronto FC 3-1 Philadelphia Union (video)

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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The game in 100 words (or less): 10 years later, Toronto FC are MLS Cup Playoffs victors. For eight seasons, the playoffs eluded them altogether. Last year, they were one-and-done in embarrassing fashion at the hands of their local rivals. In 2016, it was  their year — a proclamation we’d heard plenty times before — and so far, they’ve lived up to the hype. Wednesday’s 3-1 home victory over the Philadelphia Union in the knockout round gets the monkey off the Reds’ back, but more importantly, afforded Sebastian Giovinco, who bagged a goal and an assist on the night (his second straight game with such a line), 90 more minutes of game time after missing more than a month through injuries as the regular season wound down. After 270 minutes of action, the Atomic Ant looks sharp as ever, and destined to terrorize New York City FC, whom TFC will face in the conference semifinals, beginning Sunday.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

Three Four moments that mattered

15′ — Atlidore feeds Giovinco for 1-0 — The first playoff goal in TFC’s 10-year history. Poor goalkeeping, ball-watching defending, terrible touches, an overhead cross, and a strike off the crossbar. There’s a lot going on here. Watch it all right here.

49′ — Osorio slams home from the corner for 2-0 — The Union have been bad at defending set pieces all season, so is it at all surprising a set-piece gaffe effectively ended their season? No, it’s not.

73′ — Bedoya puts the loose ball home for 2-1 — Speaking of failing to effectively clear a corner kick, the Union were gifted a lifeline 15 minutes before full-time.

85′ — Altidore puts it out of reach, seals it for TFC — Ken Tribbet did not have the best night a center back has ever seen. His final blunder resulted in Jozy Altidore reclaiming TFC’s two-goal lead, and ending the Union’s 2016 season.

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Men of the match: Sebastian Giovinco

Goalscorers: Giovinco (15′), Osorio (49′), Bedoya (73′), Altidore (85′)

Men In Blazers podcast: Mourinho’s Chelsea return; Bradley’s 1st point

Men In Blazers
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Rog and Davo break down Jose Mourinho’s return to Chelsea with Manchester United, another stumble for Manchester City and Bob Bradley’s first Premier League point.

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VIDEO: Altidore, Giovinco combine for TFC’s first-ever playoff goal

Sebastian Giovinco
Chris Young/The Associated Press via AP
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It’s been 10 years in the making, and Toronto FC finally have their first-ever goal in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS Cup Playoffs preview coverage ]

After failing to qualify for the playoffs in each of their first eight seasons, 2015 saw the Reds venture into the postseason for the first time ever, only to be thumped in the knockout round, 3-0, by their 401 derby rival Montreal Impact, of all sides.

This is the year, though, or so we’ve said and been told all season long. While it remains to be seen how deep of a run TFC can muster in 2016, they’ll always have the Jozy Altidore‘s terrible first touch; Altidore’s wayward second and third touches; Altidore’s overhead cross; and Sebastian Giovinco’s strike, all of which you can watch in all its hilarity glory below.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Playoffs edition | MLS Cup predictions ]