I want to be the first to say it. Thank you, Sunil.
After a string of three-straight U.S.-born coaches, we’re in a much better place to ask, “Where do we go from here?” now that German icon Jurgen Klinsmann has been given the keys, the extra set of keys, and the nuclear launch codes to U.S. Soccer.
Unsurprisingly, the amount of power and control Klinsmann has been granted over all things soccer has left many baffled, if not incensed, especially considering his relatively underwhelming record thus far. But fully empowering Klinsmann may accidentally be the greatest thing Gulati has ever done for U.S. Soccer.
Acceding so much power to Klinsmann matters, not because of his pedigree as a player, coaching bonafides from his spells with the German national team and Bayern Munich, or even his results, but more broadly because of how Gulati, in hiring the German, pivoted from an era that seemed to place a premium on the importance of American leadership. That shift, in the long term, regardless of whether the Klinsmann era is ultimately viewed as a success or failure, should provide a tremendously valuable repository of information that will allow us to assess the state of coaching in U.S. men’s soccer, and the USSF’s hiring practices.
That may not have been Gulati’s intention in giving Klinsmann so much power, but it may be an inevitable outcome. And that’s a good thing.
Gulati landed his dream man in 2011, after initially trying to seduce him in 2007. But before the Klinsmann era, U.S. men’s national teams were managed by a string of proper Americans.
Klinsmann’s predecessor was all-American, humble, hard-working Princeton graduate and long-time Tigers coach Bob Bradley. Before Bradley, Major League Soccer and University of Virginia coaching icon Bruce Arena was the man on the bench calling the shots. Arena replaced former U.S. assistant and Santa Clara University coach Steve Sampson.
You have to go back 16 years before Klinsmann’s appointment to uncover the last foreign-born U.S. men’s national team coach. But the wonderfully and perpetually disheveled Bora Milutinović is an anomaly in discussions about contemporary U.S. soccer because his tenure took place during pre-modern-era American soccer, when his admittedly difficult task was to cobble together a team of players, with mostly with no notable professional experience, to compete in a World Cup on home soil.
Post-Bora, however, the job of the U.S. men’s coach wasn’t just to compete; it was to win. The focus shifted to American or foreign-born coaches (e.g., former Portugal coach and USSF technical advisor Carlos Queiroz) with an understanding of the U.S. soccer landscape, and its unique quirks (see college soccer) and challenges (see infrastructure and player development).
Sampson was up first. He lasted three years and resigned after the U.S. failed to win or even draw a single game at the 1998 World Cup. After Sampson’s unceremonious departure, then USSF president Alan Rothenberg—the man who originally fired Bora in 1995—said Bora, Queiroz, and former World Cup-winning Brazilian national team coach Carlos Alberto Parreira are “automatically” on the hire list because they are “the three international coaches who obviously have the most knowledge of our players, our structure, the country.”
The 1998 hiring decision ultimately fell to Rothenberg’s successor, Dr. Robert Contiguglia. Then USSF secretary general Hank Steinbrecher said they wanted to hire the “individual who could get the most out of an American player and the American game.”
“We think we have found the right man,” Steinbrecher said. “We believe in Major League Soccer, the American player, and the American coach.” That man was then D.C. United coach Bruce Arena.
Bradley, who was Arena’s U.S. and United assistant, took over from Arena as interim men’s national team coach in 2006. The following year, “interim” was removed from Bradley’s title.
In 2010, when U.S. Soccer renewed Bradley’s contract, Gulati said that there were “natural advantages to having a coach who understands the American system.” Upon acknowledging that “different candidates bring different attributes,” he noted, “I don’t think there’s any doubt that having knowledge of the American setup is a plus. I said that four years ago and I think that’s the case now.”
Valuing Americanness and familiarity in a U.S. national team coach isn’t an inherently crazy idea. Knowledge of surroundings is a sensible consideration when hiring anyone to do anything. But all patterns need challenging, and the very notion of Klinsmann challenged many patterns in U.S. soccer, including the entrenched pattern of American leadership.
As the first European U.S. men’s coach in the modern era, Klinsmann brought significant tangibles to the table that were easily marketable. He was a world class player on some of Europe’s finest teams. He was a World Cup winner. As a coach, he led Germany to a World Cup semifinal. His sensibilities were European; he valued playing aggressive soccer. He valued style. In many ways, his story is properly European, which is something that seems to impress certain types of people.
But he also enjoyed American things. Controversially, he brought American sports science consultants to work with his players when he was coaching the German national team. He appreciates fitness. At the time, nothing was more American than an appreciation of delectable fitness.
None of this should be too shocking considering Klinsmann is no stranger to American culture. He’s married to an American, has American children, and is a long-time California resident. More relevant, he also worked at a soccer consultancy, SoccerSolutions, a U.S.-based sports marketing and promotions company, from California before taking the Germany job.
On paper, Klinsmann checked boxes. Lots of them. Perhaps that’s why Gulati gave him everything. Klinsmann epitomizes so much of what those who have craved excellence in U.S. Soccer during the Sampson, Arena, and Bradley days wanted: pedigree, an international record of success, familiarity with America, and a commitment not just to competing or winning, but doing so with style. Yet, thus far, the soccer he’s serving looks the same, maybe even worse, than it did under the Americans.
Certainly, fundamental change takes time. But you’ll struggle to find anyone who can outline the benefits of the Klinsmann revolution over four years into his tenure. Nevertheless, even if you agree with the most fervent Klinsmann skeptics, Klinsmann’s tenure still poses stern and necessary existential questions about U.S. Soccer, and that’s important because asking existential questions is essential for growth. Are we looking at problems in the right way? Do we have the structure in place? What are we not seeing?
Of course, Gulati’s hard investment in Klinsmann won’t definitively answer any questions about whether Europeans are better suited to lead the U.S. men’s national team than an American. And it shouldn’t, because that’s an impossible question to answer. Klinsmann is but one European man—albeit one with a highly impressive Wikipedia page. But Gulati’s investment does open doors to conversations about Klinsmann, the idea, which are much more fascinating than conversations about Klinsmann, the coach.
And that’s Klinsmann’s real value. His tenure will allow us to compare and contrast Klinsmann against previous U.S. coaches, and also assess those who gave him unprecedented power and support. Why the level of trust in Klinsmann as opposed any of his predecessors, two of whom (Arena and Bradley) arguably had equally compelling runs? Does that look reasonable in retrospect? What, specifically, did he bring to the table that resulted in so much goodwill from Gulati and U.S. Soccer? Does U.S. Soccer value the wrong attributes? And if so, who gets to be held accountable for that? What are the right attributes? Who defines those? How is progress defined? How is it measured? These, and so many other conversations, can happen in a more robust manner because Gulati slid all of his chips over to Klinsmann.
Broad mandates get a bad rap. Sure, on their face, the idea of giving someone carte blanche is an unsettling idea. But broad mandates also make it harder to run from accountability, which is more important to the long-term growth of U.S. Soccer than any immediate wins or losses.
Thanks to Gulati, that theory may be tested sooner than he’d like.