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Lesson of the day: Still a lot to learn about Jurgen Klinsmann

May 23, 2014, 1:31 AM EDT

Brazil Soccer WCup Draw AP

Nobody likes to look dumb, but over the past two weeks, Jurgen Klinsmann’s done a good job making so many U.S. soccer followers look foolish. Some prescient souls saw Eddie Johnson missing the 30-man squad, while others suspected the qualifying faith Klinsmann showed in Brad Evans would expire come June. For the most part, Thursday’s announcement created a graveyard of predictions, with their authors left to mourn the failure of their foresight.

Few people thought Landon Donovan would be going home, and most of those who did thought he’d get a full camp to play his way to Brazil. And the slew of 2018-looking choices? Some thought it could break that way, but not at the expense of people like Donovan, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst. Today, ours is a profession of humbled souls.

On the surface, it looks like conventional wisdom took a huge hit on Thursday, but that assumes there is any conventional wisdom when comes to Klinsmann. That may not be the case. Honest, affable and at times blunt in his assessments of his own squad, the U.S. boss gives the impression he’s being open, but just like any head coach, there are times when that honesty is more forthright than others.

[MORE: Other countries who have “snubbed” stars]

Take Landon Donovan. Coming out of last month’s friendly against Mexico, Klinsmann ran cover for the struggling icon by pointing to a knee problem as the reason he didn’t start over Brad Davis. Now, particularly with Donovan missing no time for the Galaxy, it’s clear that wasn’t the only reason. Brad Davis was just better, to Klinsmann’s mind, so was Chris Wondolowski as a potential forward option. Somehow, most people didn’t get the hint.

Instead, most applied instinct to the problem, eventually concluding that a man of Donovan’s résumé couldn’t be excluded. They applied past experience to the quandary and came up with no relevant scenarios where Donovan would be left home. We all fell back on what we perceived as common sense only to realize the common sense we’ve developed doesn’t apply to Klinsmann. The team’s head coach had somehow taken the job without incorporating any of our assumptions.

[MORE from SOCCERLY: Klinsmann’s son deletes cruel Donovan tweet, deletes account]

With the shock of Thursday’s announcement finally settling it, there are five assumptions that now seem particularly flawed:

source: Reuters

Brad Evans (C) of the U.S. celebrates with his teammate Graham Zusi (R), as they run past Jamaica’s Alvas Powell, after scoring a goal in their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Kingston June 7, 2013. (REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy)

1. Qualifying definitely matters – Time with the national team during the last two years’ was important, but the spells we saw on television was a small part of a bigger picture. We players like Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans play important roles, but we didn’t see how close their competition was to over taking them. We didn’t see as the training, testing, and progression. We didn’t know what each player was being asked to do.

For Klinsmann, perhaps more than most coaches, those aspects are important. It’s a sign of your professionalism. In some cases, that leaves players slipping out of the team, but in others, the approach provides an opportunity to make up the gap.

Players like Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski took advantage of their opportunities both in games and out. Others did not.

2. 2018 is four years away – With players like Donovan, Edu, Evans seemingly fighting for places, three spots for 2018 prospects seemed difficult to justify. But that also assumed players like Goodson, Evans, and Parkhurst were likely to go. Free up those spots, and the DeAndre Yedlins and John Brooks of the world have room.

The problem heading into Thursday’s announcement was assuming the virtues of competition Klinsmann espoused throughout qualifying — the idea of using the cycle to prove yourself for Brazil — would preclude him adopting a focus on 2018. Thursday reminded of something we should have kept in mind all along: Klinsmann’s not only building a team for a World Cup. He’s building a program.

3. May was going to be a competition – Central midfield. Right back. Attack, both in midfield and up top. The theory was that May would be used to let these battles play out – that the friendlies would serve as auditions. Obviously, that assumption is wrong.

Klinsmann has always put a premium of what you show in training and how you test in the gym. It’s doesn’t supersede results on the field, but it does augment them. After looking at his bubble players for a week, Klinsmann had seen enough. How players performed over a week’s time in camp either confirmed or denied what Klinsmann already knew.

source: Getty Images

Timothy Chandler (L) of Nuernberg battles for the ball with Juan Arango of Moenchengladbach during the Bundesliga match between 1.FC Nuernberg and Borussia Moenchengladbach at Easy Credit Stadium. Chandler made the U.S.’s final World Cup 2014 squad. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Bongarts/Getty Images)

4. Klinsmann would approach this like other coaches – When Bob Bradley was short on forwards before leaving for South Africa, he called in the likes of Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, and Eddie Johnson to fight it out. Klinsmann could have done the same with some of his question marks, but he chose not to.

He didn’t wait until June 2 to make a decision on the Timmy Chandlers, Yedlins, and Brooks of the world. Whereas other coaches would have wanted to use Nigeria and Turkey as tests, Klinsmann’s going to use them to refine his final product.

5. The same criteria applied to everybody – Why is Brad Davis going while Landon Donovan stays? That’s apples to apples. The idea of Donovan going ahead of Green, Brooks, or Yedlin? Apples to orange seeds.

These last three years have been about competition, but when the roster was finally named, that competition meant different things for different players. Brad Evans hit all the marks, but he still lost out, and although Michael Parkhurst had seemingly proved his value, he’s returning to Columbus. Yedlin and Timmy Chandler, clearly judged against different criteria, are going to Brazil.

The extent to which any of Klinsmann’s choices were right or wrong is a different discussion. What’s clearly been proven wrong is our assumptions.

So many of the principles we tried to apply to Klinsmann’s selection were ill-founded. Even after three years, we seem to know so little about the U.S.’s boss.


  1. braxtonrob - May 23, 2014 at 1:38 AM

    Well, at least I know who to funnel ALL my anger and anguish towards, if the Ghana game goes sour.

    Jurgen, do you have a phone # I can call and leave a VM to, after the game?

  2. soccherblog - May 23, 2014 at 2:25 AM

    It was staggeringly obvious if you just paid attention. Even in your article pointing out that we don’t get klinnsman, you don’t get it.

    You wrote: “Take Landon Donovan. Coming out of last month’s friendly against Mexico, Klinsmann ran cover for the struggling icon by pointing to a knee problem as the reason he didn’t start over Brad Davis.”

    At no point did he do that, that is what the media heard but that was not what he said. He said:

    “He told me also this morning that he had some issues with his left knee. But he didn’t train well. He had no tempo in his training sessions. He had no higher pace, higher rhythm. He didn’t take people on.

    Where is the given coverage? He went after his lack of fitness and what JK clearly feels is a lie about a knee injury.

    • Richard Farley - May 23, 2014 at 2:29 AM

      All of which is why we downgraded Donovan from Lock after the friendly.

  3. mknow406a - May 23, 2014 at 2:49 AM

    Yeah. I distinctly remember around the Ukraine match saying that Beckerman and Evan’s had a “interm” tag and that JK had not taken down the help wanted signs yet … and I was told my opinion was just that and I “had to put myself in Klinsman’s shoes. And what those shoes think is…” The difference being I never tried to get into JK’s head… rather observed what he did and followed it to its logical conclusion. Observe don’t presume. When he insisted that LD was considered a forward only, the writing was on the wall. I figured he’d take the younger Boyd too, but it was always going to be either Wondo or LD… JK forced that competition with the positional groupings he made. Personally, I don’t have a horse in this race. I have no favorite MLS team, players or European club. I just enjoy watching the sport and want to see the strongest USMNT possible. That helps keep my observations fairly objective and not influenced by emotional attachments… I STILL think Beckerman is too slow… and I still think Edu was brought in because that also concerns JK. After competing head-to-head, Beckerman won out. which is fine. JK selected the player that best fit his needs… but, just because Beckerman eventually did make it, doesn’t mean he was ever any more of a lock than Evans turned out to be.

  4. lewpuls - May 23, 2014 at 8:42 AM

    How much of this is JK deciding we don’t have a realistic hope in the Group of Death even with our best players, so he prepares for 2018 by dropping many of the older players?

  5. jucam1 - May 23, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    This is 100% JK realizing he is building a team for Russia 2018. He knows he doesn’t have the talent developed yet, he wants more layers playing in legit leagues abroad, and needs more Julian Greens on this team before he can make an impact with the US at a cup. I have been saying this for over a year now and what sealed it was the brutal draw the US got. He wants to get young guys the experience to make a strong showing in ’18. Just be realistic and see that even though Portugal isn’t great, they are better, Germany is way better, and Ghana is a toss up.

  6. guerojose - May 23, 2014 at 9:58 AM

    There’s only so much Klinsmann can do, when it comes to the teams we face, and the players we have. It’s unfortunate that the inevitable reaction will be “sack him” if we don’t progress, because many of us think he’s the best thing that’s happened to the long-term prospects of the US program.

    My take is not so much “2018” – today’s conventional wisdom – but “summertime jungle”. Perhaps he’s thinking about the prospects of Donovan being able to run for 90 minutes in a sauna – as well as the likes of Ronaldo and Schweinsteiger – and thinks our best chance is to go for young stamina and speed.

  7. midtec2005 - May 23, 2014 at 10:04 AM

    After calming down a bit, I’m not that worried. We went through Hex without Landon, this team is used to playing without him. It’s still a really strong squad and they have found new ways to score. It’s still a shame he didn’t make it though.

    With regards to the number of young players, the beauty of being that young is that they don’t know that they’re too young. They will go out there and just run their heads off, often times that works out quite well… see Donovan and Beasley in 2002. I actually think it’s quite reasonable that Julian Green could give a team fits with his speed and energy in the second half. It’s also reasonable that Deandre Yedlin could give an opposing team fits for the same reason.

    • kurgen99 - May 23, 2014 at 8:06 PM

      We won some big games with guys I’d never heard of replacing players that I thought were essential.

      Jurgen gets results with whatever team he has thrown out there. He’s earned my trust. Maybe we will see the kind of “American brand” of soccer that he’s talked about. Some of the kid club teams I’ve seen around play such a beautiful game, light years beyond anything I ever saw as a kid. Maybe these kids are going to shock the hell out of some old farts in Brazil. And we are going to need some young, fresh legs when we play in Manaus. That could make all the difference in a hot, humid and wet stadium.

  8. godsholytrousers - May 23, 2014 at 11:36 AM

    Sad to see the old lions moving on. Landon and the rest made this team. This will also be Clint and Demarcus’ last go’round too. Youth have to come along eventually. Now is the time according to Herr Klinsmann.

  9. boscoesworld - May 23, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    I really don’t get why people don’t understand the Donovan cut. Jurgen told him he needed to be motivated and fit. He was neither. If your boss told you you had to do something and didn’t would expect to keep your job? Donovan has a beer gut for goodness sake. He is not in great form and has not given any indication that he is more motivated than during his sabbatical. If fact he has given less stating that he can no longer train at a high level.

  10. lyleoross - May 23, 2014 at 12:46 PM

    Very nice article. Thank you. I am always amazed at the second guessing of such decisions by people who’ve not talked to, or watched day to day what is happening on the pitch.

    JK has a vision, I like it, some won’t. But I certainly don’t think I know better than JK what he needs to fulfill that vision.

  11. wallabear - May 23, 2014 at 1:28 PM

    If Brazil plays “like a team” then no one will be able to beat them, so why all the hubbub?

    • braxtonrob - May 23, 2014 at 1:45 PM

      Legacy (i.e. posterity) THAT’S why … “all the hubbub”.
      (Don’t be shocked to find rabid USMNT fans on this site. You don’t care the same level as a fanatic, that’s fine, but there’s nothing wrong with being a fanatic over the USMNT.)

      P.s. I, for one, DON’T want to lose to Ghana for a third consecutive time, but that’s just me.

    • sportsfan18 - May 23, 2014 at 2:13 PM

      they teach that in the 6th grade…

      so you’ll learn about that in a few more years…

  12. kurgen99 - May 23, 2014 at 7:59 PM

    I don’t get the feeling that Landon was super shocked. Disappointed yes, but he’s been telling everyone that would listen that he had to fight for his spot, and he had doubts about his ability to earn it.

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