This has been a terrible week for US Soccer. Scratch that. This has been a terrible year for US Soccer.
Saturday's 3-2 heartbreaking loss to Mexico tops a list of 2015 failures that includes Olympic turmoil, a 4th place Gold Cup implosion, and constant mounting pressure on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The women's team is about the only thing going well for US Soccer, but even that has its blemishes.
So when Klinsmann publicly chided Fabian Johnson on Monday, announcing to the world that the right back had been sent home after a "severe word" in order to "rethink his approach to his team", US Soccer was blanketed in yet another layer of negativity. Johnson, the only US player competing in the Champions' League at the moment, asked for a substitution in the 111th minute of the match against Mexico, citing fatigue and an injury worry [Update 10/13: Fabian Johnson's team has confirmed he has a thigh injury]. Klinsmann reshuffled his plans (using the final sub to bring in Nick Rimando for a penalty shootout) and entered Brad Evans instead.
Klinsmann's comments on Monday seem to dismiss that Johnson has only been playing competitive matches with his club team for barely two weeks after over a month of recovery from a torn calf muscle. In those club matches, he has often been subbed out prior to the 70th minute mark.
The news that Jurgen Klinsmann had yet again firmly planted one of his players under the wheels of his We-Need-a-New-Culture bus comes as little surpise to those following the United States. The tread marks on Alejandro Bedoya are still fresh from September after Klinsmann gave the France-based player 45 minutes as a defensive midfielder against Brazil (a match the US lost 4-1). Afterward, Klinsmann blamed Bedoya, saying he was "unable to find his rhythm". Bedoya told reporters that he has never played that position professionally throughout his entire career.
There are plenty of other players that have served as Jurgen Klinsmann's scapegoat: Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, every center back that has played since 2011 - the list is long. In press conferences, Klinsmann uses these players as excuses for why the team did not meet a certain standard and has rarely (if ever) accepted responsibility for tactical, positional, or roster errors.
In 2013, Brian Straus (now with Sports Illustrated) released an article that shook the national team to its core. Straus spoke with current and former national team players anonymously about Klinsmann's coaching and tactical awareness. The result was a nearly unanimous exposé that painted a picture of an off-kilter locker room completely at a loss as to what they should be doing and where they should be headed.
Klinsmann had an opportunity to respond to the piece and had several choice comments that, two years later, seem to still characterize the state of the United States national team. Here are several selections from that piece:
My job is to elevate the program and I can't do that by doing the exact same of what they did before me. I can only get to another level by bringing in new players and challenging the older players. - Jurgen Klinsmann
The [defense] never played together in any game... The back four is all about jelling. It's a frying pan. We don't have time to learn. - Tim Howard
Some guys are out of their comfort zone, absolutely. It's not actually the coach that has to adjust to the players... It's actually the players' job to take the information from the coach, with whatever personality the coach has and let it kind of sink into his own system. - Jurgen Klinsmann
I think we spend more time worrying about gyms and nutrition, and we don't do enough of what we need to do on the field. - Anonymous US player
[When losing, Jurgen] didn't really say that much. Just, 'C'mon, we've got to win this game... We're going to win this game. It was never, 'We need to do this. We need to change this.' - Anonymous US player
This is not happening overnight... The only way we get them to that next level is to run them through this uncomfortable period and they have to learn and they have to swim in the cold water. And we're going to convince the world later. - Jurgen Klinsmann
By all appearances, Jurgen has not only dropped players uncomfortably into cold water, but more or less an ocean without land in sight.
These comments (and others in the piece) from over two years ago still ring very true to today. Even more, Jurgen's tactics as a head coach appear only marginally different than Bob Bradley's tenure. The team still concedes possession at a high rate, opting for the bunkering counter-attack against teams not from the Caribbean. And when it doesn't work? Jurgen has about eleven go-to excuses to pick from and they all played on the pitch.
When Klinsmann signed on to coach the US national team, he stated two goals. The first was to implement a proactive style to the team. It seemed to work at first, as the United States pushed through the transition period and developed plays on the field that would seem out of place during Bob Bradley's tenure. But gradually, over the last couple years, the team has regressed back to the familiar bunkering strategy. There is nothing proactive about their performance on Saturday night against their rivals in a regional Final that meant something.
The second goal? Reworking the youth development system - which many had seen as stagnant for years. There has been influx of exciting talent - Emerson Hyndman, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Gedion Zelalam - but the youth squads have repeatedly run into disappointment, failing to qualify for tournaments (or suffering early exits). Hours before the men's team were run out of Pasadena, the youth squad were embarrassed by a 2-0 defeat to Honduras, leaving Olympic qualification a huge mountain to climb. If the youth team fails to qualify, it will be the second consecutive Olympics without participation for the United States.
And that's not reassuring because players that may one day feature for the senior national team will be devoid of important experiences that could help them succeed at, say, the World Cup (or, let's be honest, the Gold Cup first). And, without the 2017 Confederations Cup, the 2016 Olympics, and the uncertain future of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, the United States may be facing a dearth of competitive tournaments until the World Cup in 2018. Friendlies alone are not conducive to success on a global stage.
Klinsmann has shed many of the players that played against Mexico (in addition to Fabian Johnson) as he prepares to take on Costa Rica Tuesday evening in New York. I don't know if there's anything to be learned from this game or if it's even worth watching. I'm sure someone will somehow be at fault for something that probably lies with Jurgen. And nothing will change afterward but we'll still be asking the same question.
What is Jurgen Klinsmann doing?