The signature moment of Bob Bradley’s tenure as U.S. men’s national team coach came during the first half of the ill-fated Round of 16 match against Ghana at the 2010 World Cup. Ghana was up 1–0 thanks to a fifth-minute turnover by Ricardo Clark, followed immediately by a Kevin-Prince Boateng goal. It was the most notable mistake of the worst game of Clark’s international career — a 34-game reign of terror that offers many candidates to choose from.
In the 31st minute, Bradley subbed Clark off for the steadier Maurice Edu. Any non-injury-related substitution before about the 60th minute is unusual, and anything before halftime smacks of desperation. But for as great a mistake as starting Clark was, Bradley recognized and fixed it. At halftime, he removed Robbie Findley for Benny Feilhaber — an improvement in that I can recall Feilhaber actually touching and controlling the ball in an American uniform.
Those moves nearly sent his team through — a resurgent U.S. equalized in the second half before ultimately losing in extra time — but they were necessary only because Bradley had made mistakes that left his team down a goal and two subs by halftime in the first place. That was the frustrating part of Bradley’s largely successful five-year tenure: He met expectations, but always left American fans wanting more. And after Bradley’s men blew a 2–0 lead to Mexico in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup final, they got it.
Jürgen Klinsmann had it all — a superstar playing pedigree, a managerial CV that included stops at the German national team and Bayern Munich, credibility with top European clubs, and most of all, ambition. Since returning to the national soccer stage in 1990, the U.S. had been treading water, alternating World Cup knockout-stage appearances with group-stage defeats, and trading Gold Cup titles with Mexico (save for a Canada win in 2000).
Klinsmann promised to break out of that rut. He promised to revamp a parochial and ineffective youth-development system and, after years of losing out on the likes of Neven Subotic and Giuseppe Rossi, convince the best U.S.-eligible players to play for the U.S. Through these means he would hasten the coming of that messianic world-class American goalscorer that Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, and Juan Agudelo all have fallen short of becoming — what Deadspin’s Kevin Draper described as the “Tennessee-raised future-Messi.”
And most of all, Klinsmann promised soccer’s greatest snake oil: a proactive, technical approach, so-called “beautiful soccer.”
Soccer is perhaps uniquely obsessed with style points, the idea that a hard-fought 1–0 win, with the lone goal being scored on the counterattack, is somehow less virtuous than slick passing through the midfield. (It’s not the only reason why José Mourinho is the bad guy in his rivalry with Pep Guardiola, but it’s one of them.) From Klinsmann and the American soccer community, it was a pointed criticism of Bradley, whose biggest win, the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal victory over Spain, was an Alamo-style rearguard action, and whose teams could not crack open lesser, defensive-minded CONCACAF opponents at will.
Klinsmann was the perfect figurehead for what the U.S. Soccer establishment viewed as a watershed moment, an opportunity to break a run of three straight pragmatic American coaches who’d come up through the college and American professional ranks and find a man who could do the hard parts of the job — not just replace Clark and Findley at the right time, but not start them in the first place, and develop better players to begin with.
But for all his ambition and (largely correct) big ideas about the direction of American soccer, Klinsmann, who also became U.S. Soccer’s technical director in 2013, is not only not the guy who would’ve benched Clark and Findley, he probably never would have subbed them out.
Klinsmann has vacillated between talking big about the next generation of young American talent — going so far as to play DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, and John Brooks in the 2014 World Cup — and building around Clint Dempsey and the dreadlocked midfield gerontocracy of Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman into their mid-30s. Not taking Donovan to that World Cup is garden-variety managerial pettiness in the soccer world, but Klinsmann — who used his criticism of MLS lifers like a cudgel against Donovan — started MLS lifer Brad Davis against Germany and [watches Chris Wondolowski’s stoppage-time sitter against Belgium fly over the bar in a recurring national nightmare].
At the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann played Dempsey and Michael Bradley higher up the pitch to compensate for an injury to Altidore, and he moved Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson all around midfield and the backline at will — occasionally playing all four of his best outfield players out of position at the same time.
Most recently, in the 4–0 loss to Costa Rica on Tuesday, Klinsmann started Matt Besler at left back. As a central defender, Besler is a solid positional defender, one of the pleasant surprises of Klinsmann’s tenure, but as a fullback he’s slow and frequently looks lost, and provides no attacking threat whatsoever. Apart from Altidore and the keepers, nobody’s got a fixed position under Klinsmann, and a team that seeks to be versatile and adaptable frequently looks like it’s got no plan at all.
Even his successes can look unintentional. Under Klinsmann, the U.S. avenged two straight World Cup losses to Ghana, thanks to two goals against the run of play separated by more than 80 minutes of Ghanaian domination. They advanced from the group because a disorganized Portugal no-showed against Germany and sent the Americans through on goal difference. They waltzed to the Gold Cup title and first place in CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifiers in 2013 over the most troubled Mexico team ever, and they made the semifinal of the Copa America Centenario when Brazil joga bonito’d its way to a loss in the group-stage finale against Peru, which sent the whole draw into utter chaos.
As for that American Messi: Green has yet to make his Bundesliga debut for Bayern Munich, and fellow German American wunderkind Gedion Zelalem has made a total of four appearances for Arsenal’s first team (none of them in the Premier League), and zero for the U.S. senior national team. Maybe Borussia Dortmund winger Christian Pulisic is that guy, but we’ve had that lifeline yanked away too many times to trust him completely.
The U.S. is coming off its worst Gold Cup finish since 2000, has failed to qualify for two straight Olympics and two straight Confederations Cups, and is still looking for its first point in the Hex, having had its myth of invincibility against Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus breached forever along the way. If Klinsmann has brought any progress to American soccer, none of it has shown up with the senior national team.
Is bringing back Bruce Arena, the “steady-handed American” type that Klinsmann was supposed to replace, the answer? Or can Klinsmann right the ship and get the U.S. to the World Cup in 2018? I don’t know. But someone’s got to start coaching this team.