Lesson of the day: Still a lot to learn about Jurgen Klinsmann

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Nobody likes to look dumb, but over the past two weeks, Jurgen Klinsmann’s done a good job making so many U.S. soccer followers look foolish. Some prescient souls saw Eddie Johnson missing the 30-man squad, while others suspected the qualifying faith Klinsmann showed in Brad Evans would expire come June. For the most part, Thursday’s announcement created a graveyard of predictions, with their authors left to mourn the failure of their foresight.

Few people thought Landon Donovan would be going home, and most of those who did thought he’d get a full camp to play his way to Brazil. And the slew of 2018-looking choices? Some thought it could break that way, but not at the expense of people like Donovan, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst. Today, ours is a profession of humbled souls.

On the surface, it looks like conventional wisdom took a huge hit on Thursday, but that assumes there is any conventional wisdom when comes to Klinsmann. That may not be the case. Honest, affable and at times blunt in his assessments of his own squad, the U.S. boss gives the impression he’s being open, but just like any head coach, there are times when that honesty is more forthright than others.

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Take Landon Donovan. Coming out of last month’s friendly against Mexico, Klinsmann ran cover for the struggling icon by pointing to a knee problem as the reason he didn’t start over Brad Davis. Now, particularly with Donovan missing no time for the Galaxy, it’s clear that wasn’t the only reason. Brad Davis was just better, to Klinsmann’s mind, so was Chris Wondolowski as a potential forward option. Somehow, most people didn’t get the hint.

Instead, most applied instinct to the problem, eventually concluding that a man of Donovan’s résumé couldn’t be excluded. They applied past experience to the quandary and came up with no relevant scenarios where Donovan would be left home. We all fell back on what we perceived as common sense only to realize the common sense we’ve developed doesn’t apply to Klinsmann. The team’s head coach had somehow taken the job without incorporating any of our assumptions.

[MORE from SOCCERLY: Klinsmann’s son deletes cruel Donovan tweet, deletes account]

With the shock of Thursday’s announcement finally settling it, there are five assumptions that now seem particularly flawed:

source: Reuters
Brad Evans (C) of the U.S. celebrates with his teammate Graham Zusi (R), as they run past Jamaica’s Alvas Powell, after scoring a goal in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Kingston June 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy)

1. Qualifying definitely matters – Time with the national team during the last two years’ was important, but the spells we saw on television was a small part of a bigger picture. We players like Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans play important roles, but we didn’t see how close their competition was to over taking them. We didn’t see as the training, testing, and progression. We didn’t know what each player was being asked to do.

For Klinsmann, perhaps more than most coaches, those aspects are important. It’s a sign of your professionalism. In some cases, that leaves players slipping out of the team, but in others, the approach provides an opportunity to make up the gap.

Players like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski took advantage of their opportunities both in games and out. Others did not.

2. 2018 is four years away – With players like Donovan, Edu, Evans seemingly fighting for places, three spots for 2018 prospects seemed difficult to justify. But that also assumed players like Goodson, Evans, and Parkhurst were likely to go. Free up those spots, and the DeAndre Yedlins and John Brooks of the world have room.

The problem heading into Thursday’s announcement was assuming the virtues of competition Klinsmann espoused throughout qualifying — the idea of using the cycle to prove yourself for Brazil — would preclude him adopting a focus on 2018. Thursday reminded of something we should have kept in mind all along: Klinsmann’s not only building a team for a World Cup. He’s building a program.

3. May was going to be a competition – Central midfield. Right back. Attack, both in midfield and up top. The theory was that May would be used to let these battles play out – that the friendlies would serve as auditions. Obviously, that assumption is wrong.

Klinsmann has always put a premium of what you show in training and how you test in the gym. It’s doesn’t supersede results on the field, but it does augment them. After looking at his bubble players for a week, Klinsmann had seen enough. How players performed over a week’s time in camp either confirmed or denied what Klinsmann already knew.

source: Getty Images
Timothy Chandler (L) of Nuernberg battles for the ball with Juan Arango of Moenchengladbach during the Bundesliga match between 1.FC Nuernberg and Borussia Moenchengladbach at Easy Credit Stadium. Chandler made the U.S.’s final World Cup 2014 squad. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Bongarts/Getty Images)

4. Klinsmann would approach this like other coaches – When Bob Bradley was short on forwards before leaving for South Africa, he called in the likes of Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, and Eddie Johnson to fight it out. Klinsmann could have done the same with some of his question marks, but he chose not to.

He didn’t wait until June 2 to make a decision on the Timmy Chandlers, Yedlins, and Brooks of the world. Whereas other coaches would have wanted to use Nigeria and Turkey as tests, Klinsmann’s going to use them to refine his final product.

5. The same criteria applied to everybody – Why is Brad Davis going while Landon Donovan stays? That’s apples to apples. The idea of Donovan going ahead of Green, Brooks, or Yedlin? Apples to orange seeds.

These last three years have been about competition, but when the roster was finally named, that competition meant different things for different players. Brad Evans hit all the marks, but he still lost out, and although Michael Parkhurst had seemingly proved his value, he’s returning to Columbus. Yedlin and Timmy Chandler, clearly judged against different criteria, are going to Brazil.

The extent to which any of Klinsmann’s choices were right or wrong is a different discussion. What’s clearly been proven wrong is our assumptions.

So many of the principles we tried to apply to Klinsmann’s selection were ill-founded. Even after three years, we seem to know so little about the U.S.’s boss.

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