When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national team, he wasn’t interested in making modest tweaks. He wanted to lead a revolution.
New training methods and a more dynamic playing style were needed. A youth developmental system had to be reemphasized, and some of the team’s most enduring and iconic stars would be pushed aside.
The criticism was relentless. Yet, Klinsmann never relented, and a decade later, the German team he rebuilt won a World Cup.
“In 2004, German football was down. We took decisive steps,” Joachim Loew, Klinsmann’s handpicked successor as Germany’s coach, said after raising the trophy two years ago in Brazil. “We said, ‘We have to invest more in the education so we are technically better.’
“This is the result of that work, beginning with Jurgen Klinsmann.”
Klinsmann attempted a similar revolution with U.S. Soccer, one that ended with his firing last week. Yet, many of the changes he instituted will live on in his absence, just as they did in Germany, conceded the man who hired and fired him.
“The seriousness with which players may approach the game and their craft is one of those things,” said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “Things that have happened in terms of our grassroots programs, the shorter-term issues, things like new players that have been brought in, those are obvious ones.
“Another important one is the awareness of the program. Jurgen, by who he was, elevated the program in terms of publicity, not only in the United States, [but] around the world. Those are all pluses, and we’ll see some of the dividends of those.”
There are numerous parallels between Klinsmann’s two-year stint as Germany’s coach and his 5 1/2 years with the U.S.
Germany had washed out of the European Championships in the group stage twice in four years before Klinsmann was hired in 2004. A World Cup champion with Germany as a player, Klinsmann immediately instituted a series of unpopular reforms, bringing in fitness trainers and sports psychologists, supporting a nascent youth movement to freshen the roster, surrounding himself with loyal confidants and taking the armband away from captain Oliver Kahn, whom he eventually benched.
Klinsmann also experimented with formations and tactics while rotating players through positions with which some weren’t comfortable. The moves were wildly panned as unnecessary tinkering. But the critics quieted when Germany made it to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup.
Klinsmann then turned the team over to Loew, but he left behind a foundation to build on. World champions Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski, Thomas Mueller and Mario Goetze are all graduates of the youth project that took off under Klinsmann. Another byproduct of that was seen last summer when the country’s U-23 team, which hadn’t qualified for the Olympics since 1988, made it to the gold-medal game in Rio de Janeiro.
Klinsmann also had successes — albeit far more modest ones — with the U.S. national team, which he served as coach and technical director. He won a Gold Cup title in 2013, advanced out of the “Group of Death” in the 2014 World Cup, scored first-ever wins in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Mexico, and made it to the semifinals of last summer’s Copa America Centenario. Along the way, he won 55 games, second all-time to his successor, Bruce Arena, among U.S. coaches.
But his high-energy, cocksure approach won him enemies too. Klinsmann was trying to build a soccer program, not consensus, so if you weren’t with him, you were against him. At times, there were so many players in his doghouse, it looked like a kennel.
The biggest dog to be ostracized was Landon Donovan, cut from the team less than a month before what would have been his fourth World Cup.
Klinsmann’s progress stalled after that World Cup, with the Americans finishing fourth in the 2015 Gold Cup and losing a playoff to Mexico that cost them a berth in next year’s Confederations Cup. Then this month, they started the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying with consecutive defeats, the first time a U.S. team had done that.
Klinsmann also was hurt by his high expectations. He promised nothing short of a revolution, predicting five months before his sacking that the U.S. would reach the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup. But when results failed to match his expectations, Klinsmann deflected the blame toward his players, their approach and the U.S. soccer culture in general.
When he was fired, the response in Germany was predictable.
“The general reaction,” summed up Klinsmann biographer Erik Kirschbaum, The Times’ Berlin-based correspondent, “is that America just doesn’t have a clue about soccer and couldn’t fully appreciate what he was trying to do.”
Maybe. Perhaps Klinsmann will be proved right again and many of the things he preached will come true, just as in Germany. Perhaps young American players really do need to test themselves in the crucible of European competition. Maybe an integrated system of coaching and development, linking the national team to youth leagues, is needed to make the U.S. a soccer power.
Either way, it will be years before we know whether Klinsmann was once again a prophet ahead of his time or simply the wrong man at the wrong time.