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History repeating: Klinsmann and Eriksson’s time in Mexico

Oct 14, 2012, 1:27 AM EDT


Broad strokes can paint an array of tenuous similarities between Sven-Goran Eriksson and Jurgen Klinsmann, men whose 16-year gap in age may be their least-compelling difference. Still, both have managed major European countries and are known for their affability. They’re media darlings who carry a cosmopolitan air that allows them to easily navigate different circles. The two even passed each other in the night at Sampdoria, Eriksson leaving for Lazio as Klinsmann arrived in 1997.

In 2008, Eriksson’s long managerial career took an unexpected turn when he began an ill-fated tenure as coach of the Mexican national team, a move that would eventually create another flimsy link between himself and the German icon. Three years later, Klinsmann was hired to overhaul CONCACAF’s other power, accepting the head coach’s role with the United States.

Since Klinsmann’s appointment, the parallels between him and Eriksson continue to grow, even if the vastly different worlds of American and Mexican soccer often make for clumsy comparisons. But given the striking similarities between the two coaches’ mandates, the follies of Eriksson’s 10-month tenure offer a number of lessons.

Eriksson’s eventual demise begged a question still relevant for Klinsmann: Can you overhaul a program and qualify out of CONCACAF for a World Cup? With Eriksson, Mexico didn’t wait to find out.

“The decision of the club directors was unanimous.” – Jorge Vergara, member, Mexican soccer federation (FMF) selection committee, announcing the hire of Sven Goran Eriksson1

At the time of his appointment, the 60-year-old Eriksson was still a hot coaching commodity, even if he’d just been harshly dismissed from Manchester City by then-owner Thaksin Shinawatra. The former Benfica, Lazio and England boss had guided Manchester City to ninth in the Premier League, a place in Europe (via fair play), and two derby wins over Manchester United. But a hot start that saw City take an early league lead was ultimately his undoing. Shinawatra cited a series of poor, end of season results as cause for termination, a bizarre euphemism for (what was then) City’s best Premier League points haul.

For the United States, landing Jurgen Klinsmann was a similar coup. Like Eriksson, he had his skeptics. The success of his Germany successor (Joachim Löw) has led to the meme that the former Nationalmannschaft boss was little more than a figurehead, an unfair assessment. Klinsmann is rightfully credited with leading Germany’s mid-oughts resurgence. Resuscitating the country’s youth system made him a perfect candidate for U.S. soccer. The highest profile coach the States had ever hired, Klinsmann represented a chance to start the country’s much-debated overhaul.

So it was that after a five-year courtship – with near elopements in 2006 and 2010 – the California native was announced as Bob Bradley’s replacement. One day shy of his 47th birthday, Klinsmann was back coaching. Three years after rival Mexico had swung for the fences with their own hire, the States had followed suit.

“This is not the time to hire a European coach .. if you do that, you are not thinking in soccer terms.” – Jared Borghetti, forward, Mexico2

“I don’t think I’d like to see 11 naturalized players in the national team.” – Guillermo Ochoa, goalkeeper, Mexico3

There was never going to be a good time for the FMF to hire a European coach. Bora Milutinovic was Serbian but had roots in Mexico, where he had resided for over a decade before being appointed national team manager in 1983. That connection allowed the future U.S. men’s coach to transcend the suspicions Mexican soccer fans hold toward Europeans, an attitude born of pride that sees no reason their futbol should bow to perceived European arrogance.

Initially Eriksson helped downplay their fears. He took hours of Spanish lessons each day, often giving interviews in the language, even when it didn’t help. “We’re at a level now to make life complicated for any team,” he said early on, assuaging concerns he’d subjugate Mexico.4

Those concerns returned with Eriksson’s naturalization policy. He aggressively sought to bring in talent from outside Mexico’s player pool, recalling Matias Vuoso, Lucas Ayala (both Argentine), Leandro Augusto and Antonio Naelson (Brazilians) for a 2009 friendly against his native Sweden. Whatever hope Eriksson had of winning over the Mexican public was lost when those players gained access to the tricolor.

Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t had to deal with such concerns. Having adopted the United States as his home, Klinsmann’s an established fixture in the country’s soccer, appearing in analyst roles on television and serving as an advisor to Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. His biggest criticisms – an abhorrence of pay-to-play development, his desire to see the country’s soccer reflect its makeup – are shared by the average U.S. Soccer fan.

“I’ve been around a long time … I’ve been to very good schools in that way, Italy and England. I’m not worried about that.” – Eriksson2

“It’s a European style … Little by little he’s trying to implant it, but he’s respecting the essence of Mexican soccer, the way we play with the ball.” – Francisco Fonseca, forward, Mexico2

Klinsmann’s big point of deviation is style – playing and tactical. Under previous coaches, the United States had been reactive, approaches that allowed the team to leverage their athlete’s strengths while minimizing the their technical weaknesses. Hired with a platform to change the program, that’s necessarily had to change under Klinsmann. If Bob Bradley had adopted a style that compensated for the U.S.’s weaknesses, Klinsmann was going to face the challenge head on.

That challenge reached a climax last week, with Klinsmann nearly losing the fans the same way Eriksson lost Mexico’s. When Jozy Altidore was left out of his 24-man team, the U.S. soccer-following public reacted. Some supported leaving him out, but most reacted with wonder: How can the U.S. not call in their best goal scorer, somebody who was leading a European leave in goals?

On Friday, Klinsmann was two minutes away from the decision flying in his face. Had the States left Antigua with less than three points, Altidore would have become a red herring. He would have been the four South Americans Eriksson called up for Sweden. He would have symbolized the plot Klinsmann had lost, whether the details matched the narrative or not. Instead, when Alan Gordon crossed to Eddie Johnson, Klinsmann was vindicated, his two most emblems of change combining for a qualifier-winning goal.

The problems still exist, though. Just as Eriksson was able to navigate third round qualifying despite discord about his callups, Klinsmann has the U.S. on the verge of the hex, even if his changes have yet to take root. The U.S. often looks labored in attack, the team’s new approach yet to create a final-third mentality that will consistently produce goals.

“Jamaica are a tough team but we’re not scared of playing there … I’m not going to send out a team of battlers. We are not going for a war.” – Eriksson4

“We could not take risks with qualification for the World Cup, and we could not rely solely on results at the Estadio Azteca.” – Justino Compean, former FMF president5

“We told Mr. Eriksson that his term with the national team has finished.” – Compean5

On November 19, 2008, Mexico lost 1-0 in Honduras in third round qualifying, putting their 2010 World Cup hopes in Jamaica’s hands. The Reggae Boyz had kicked off one hour later in Kingston. A blowout win over Canada would give them Mexico’s spot in the Hex. Instead, their 3-0 win left them three behind on goal difference. Despite picking up only one point on the road, Mexico were through, and for the time being, Eriksson’s job was safe.

Opening The Hex with a Feb. 2009 loss in Columbus was disappointing, but road defeats to the United States weren’t something gets a CONCACAF coach fired. When Mexico beat Costa Rica the following month at Azteca, Eriksson was widely seen as having saved his job.

Four days later, he was gone. El Tri had lost 3-1 in Honduras, a demoralizing performance that saw the Catrachos up three before Mexico saved some face. The next day (Apr. 2), 10 months after Eriksson had been hired with unanimous approval from Mexico’s club presidents, he was dismissed. Former Atlético Madrid manger Javier Aguirre started his second tenure with Mexico two days later, eventually guiding El Tri to South Africa.

As much as Eriksson was fired because of poor results, the FMF took action because they didn’t have faith the results would improve. Winning at home with mixed results on the road could be tolerated if there is faith in the future, but the federation no longer believed in his project. Eriksson undermined his plan when we challenged Mexico’s culture and never did anything to correct course. That he didn’t seem to understand the challenges of CONCACAF (particularly on the road) forced Mexico to move on.

Like Eriksson, Klinsmann’s unlikely to change direction, but that doesn’t mean he’s destined for the same fate. Had Mexico shown improvement in the winter of ’09, Eriksson would have survived, but with the raised stakes of The Hex, the FMF couldn’t take any chances. A country with Mexico’s history couldn’t risk missing another World Cup.

With the U.S. in an identical position, Klinsmann needs to show the improvement Eriksson never found; else, we will find out if U.S. Soccer has more patience than the FMF. Given the close relationship between U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and Klinsmann, it will be more difficult for the USSF to change course. By taking the chance of bringing in Klinsmann at Bradley’s expense, Gulati’s endorsed the massive changes to style and development. An unwillingness to accept the hiccups of third round qualifying would be hypocritical.

But like Mexico, it’s unconscionable for the United States to miss a World Cup. For competitive, developmental, and financial reasons, U.S. Soccer can’t be on the sidelines for Brazil 2014.

Klinsmann may be a completely different man than Eriksson, but if the U.S.’s third round struggles persist into The Hex, the parallels between the two men could continue to grow.

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  1. kingarthur900 - Oct 14, 2012 at 3:11 AM

    Richard! Raising the bar for soccer blog journalists everywhere. Researched!! Well reasoned!! Interesting!! Full-throttle!!

  2. tylerbetts - Oct 14, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    I agree with above. Excellent, excellent piece.

    • Richard Farley - Oct 14, 2012 at 5:47 PM

      Thanks, Tyler and KA. I’d like to play it cool, but comments like these are all REALLY appreciated.

  3. footballer4ever - Oct 14, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    Unlike Eriksson, Klinsman is in a country where football, err, soccer, is not the main sport and the pressure is not the same. One more thing, the US is a melting pot and having a diversed background footballers will not be as shocking as it happened in Mexico which is not a welcoming country of foreigners unless it’s for tourism purposes.

    Let’s be real here, there will come to a point where the US will miss qualifying to a WC as much as it may hurt. Let’s just hope it’s not anytime soon.

  4. bishopofblunder - Oct 14, 2012 at 2:57 PM

    I agree with footballer4ever. Mexican soccer has a tradition and identity. American soccer, not so much. Therefore, the length of Klinsman’s tenure will be based mostly on results alone. The question is: how many bad results (lost games) must there be before he’s replaced?

  5. footballer4ever - Oct 14, 2012 at 4:29 PM

    In Klinsmann’s case, his tenure will be determined in the short term mostly if the US men’s National Team qualifies to Brasil 2014. After that is accomplished, if so, it’d be on football level performance and cohesion to perform consistently in the long term or else, it will be time to change paths for the sake of it.

    The fact USMNT lacks the tradition or identity, unlike Mexican football, has to do more with time than anything else. However, the US team has been writing their own tradition and identity one WC at a time for the past 20 years since it qualified to Italia ’90 WC. That is why it’s very important to keep this momentum going because it will affect our football growth in the states than a football passionate country llike England were to miss it.

    I’ll skip work on Tuesday night to root for the USMNT vs Guatemala.

  6. footballer4ever - Oct 14, 2012 at 6:12 PM

    @ Richard Farley

    PST is a young blog, compared to the other established ones at NBC sports Talk, which I’ve come to use on a daily basis. The best barometer of appreciation to your work is not only the kind words expressed directly, but the quality of the comments which adds value to your posts. I appreciate the way you safeguard our blog against people who try to bring drama or hate talk to it. We may be few in quantity, but the best one in content, value, and quality. Thank you.

    • Richard Farley - Oct 14, 2012 at 6:47 PM

      Thanks! Steve and I do our own monitoring (sometimes with different results), but the commonality is trying to avoid anything unduly negative. As you’ve probably noticed, that isn’t about avoiding criticism (that’d be impossible). It’s more about proportionality. Almost anytime somebody drops a rhetorical bomb on us or another commenter, that’s going to get cleaned up (regardless of the validity of the post).

      We do get some occasional trash, but we try our best to clean it up.

      As you noted, this is a young blog. Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow, and the community will grow with us. Based on the direction of the feedback, I very much look forward to the process.

  7. footballer4ever - Oct 14, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    ” Based on the direction of the feedback, I very much look forward to the process.”

    Definitely! There is no doubt in my mind about that.

    I already have and continue to refer people to PST as much as i can. One thing I’ve noticed is the author’s’ participation and interaction with commenters which i hope it does not go away even when it gets bigger in popularity.

    • Richard Farley - Oct 14, 2012 at 8:28 PM

      For a long time, I stayed away from the comments. I’ve come back, though, because I was very encouraged by users like yourself (and the other regular, like ndnut, tylerbetts, among others).

      The main reason my career has gravitated toward writing about soccer is the ability to talk to people like this. I’ve always been an ardent soccer fan and a writer, but it was only the desire to share with others that led me to combine the two.

  8. whordy - Oct 14, 2012 at 8:07 PM

    The parallels with Mexico even remind me of how they missed out on the 08 Games. And look where they are now. Hopefully we follow a similar path.
    But the biggest difference is, as mentioned, the USA is a team/nation that needed that change of pace. Mexico was always another great soccer country that has had success and knew what it was doing. But we needed new direction. 10 years of stagnation, a disjointed, fuzzy youth system – I love that at the very least Klinsmann came in here and has been asking the hard questions of MLS, NCAA, and our youth development.
    Yes, I get it. He is a coach, what he does on the field is most important. But I for one don’t want to become 50 and watch this team be the same type of Top 30/25 team that will bunker in against the bigger teams. Atleast Klinsmann wants to have influence off the pitch – driving players to transfer to bigger, more challenging leagues, looking at our youth system objectively.
    With Klinsmann comes ambition and a bigger-picture drive that was missing with yes-men like Bradley and Arena.

    • Richard Farley - Oct 14, 2012 at 8:30 PM

      Re: 08 … one part of this piece that I had to cut out was discussion of what came before Sven. The piece was just too long for that, and the way I structured it didn’t lend itself to those kind of digressions.

      Of course, four years after that failure, Mexico won gold.

  9. packerken2000 - Oct 15, 2012 at 1:24 PM

    As a pft reader, I only started reading pst because of the iPhone app. I’m glad I found it. New to watching soccer and I have learned a ton here. Thank you for the great posts. They are appreciated!

    • Richard Farley - Oct 15, 2012 at 1:50 PM

      Thanks, packerken … that feedback really helps. We’ll continue to try to push forward – tighten up and expand.

      Nice win last nice for your guys. Very impressive to come out so strong in Houston.

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