Time has a habit of blurring memories. So it’s perhaps within that context that it’s best to judge former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s comments about the state of the USMNT, and what he said he could accomplish if he hadn’t been fired in 2016.
Now with Hertha Berlin on an interim basis and in Florida for a mid-season training camp, Klinsmann told ESPN that he believed had he been allowed to stay on as USMNT coach, he could have led the side to the quarterfinals, if not the semifinals in the 2018 World Cup. In reality, the USMNT began World Cup qualifying with two demoralizing defeats, leading to his dismissal after a year in which the cracks began showing. The U.S. mostly took care of business at home but couldn’t beat Costa Rica at home, and eventually the loss at Trinidad and Tobago, combined with other results, meant the U.S. missed out on the World Cup.
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“As I said, I’d take that team in Russia to the final eight, maybe even the final four because there was a building block there and there was a plan for it and the plan got interrupted and it got even more interrupted when the U.S. didn’t qualify for Russia,” Klinsmann told ESPN.
It’s hard to know what kind of plan Klinsmann is talking about. Sure, there was a plan to go to the World Cup, but it’s clear the players weren’t executing that plan. Whether because the game-by-game plans were inadequate or the players weren’t good enough, the “plan” wasn’t working. Remember, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones had to run over to the sidelines in the USMNT’s 2-1 defeat to Mexico because Klinsmann’s tactical plan was so convoluted. Most pundits believe that the first 30 minutes doomed the USMNT to the defeat.
Then, the U.S. went down to Costa Rica and got smashed, 4-0, in which it looked ill-prepared to deal with the heat, crowd, and CONCACAF-style tactics. So maybe Klinsmann would have recovered in 2017 and qualified the U.S. for the World Cup, but it’s certainly possible they could have continued to collapse and be out of the World Cup before the final matchday. That’s how bad it was.
Even if Klinsmann did get the USMNT to the World Cup, would Christian Pulisic have been enough to lead the team to the quarterfinals or further? The squad was in massive need of a refresh, but at the time no one had beaten out the likes of Jozy Altidore, Bradley, Jones, or Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez, among many others. And you can argue the current USMNT players in those positions aren’t playing much better than the ones they replaced.
Perhaps with time, Klinsmann has forgotten some of those harsh moments and remembers the good times. He still talks about how the U.S. emerged from the “Group of Death” at the 2014 World Cup – a good achievement but not one that was impossible – and a couple of good performances at the Gold Cup and Copa America Centenario.
But there’s no doubt that for all of Klinsmann’s positives, he helped put the U.S. on the path to where it is now. The sooner he understands that, the better.