By J Hutcherson (Nov 22, 2016) US Soccer Players – When I was a kid, I got a book out of the library that only had a little bit to do with the National Basketball Association. New York Knicks forward Dave “The Rave” Stallworth wrote “Look to the Light Side” shortly after his team won the NBA championship. That was enough of a reason to publish, but it wasn’t the point of the story. Stallworth overcame a heart attack early in his career. His book, aimed at teenagers, was about how to put things in perspective. As the title suggests, keep things in perspective.
One of the hallmarks of the Klinsmann era in US Soccer was the coach choosing to keep things in perspective. Klinsmann could talk down trouble, disappointments, and bad results with a grin and a dismissal of critics real and imagined. He’s good at it, something he’d already mastered with Germany and Bayern Munich.
That controlled positivity eventually begins to grate on people isn’t exactly news. There’s always the risk that continually looking to the light side turns into its own issue. At some point, it has to be serious enough to shake off that quest for positivity. Oddly enough, Klinsmann said as much following a friendly loss to Brazil at FedEx Field a few years ago. Speaking at the postgame press conference, Klinsmann talked about his players getting mean, bordering on dirty. It was a direct way of sayin take this seriously, even a friendly. Gamesmanship counts, and eventually that might be the difference between winning and losing.
For Klinsmann the player, that was something he did well. He was good at forcing the referee to make a decision. There are other ways to word that, of course. Klinsmann the player did whatever he thought was necessary to give his team the edge. That mentality won a World Cup. As a coach, it’s tougher. Impressing on a squad the need to do everything possible to win is one thing. Keeping it so positive in the process is another. That basic dichotomy created tension for Klinsmann throughout his time in charge of the USMNT. It was a mixed message with a harsh downside for players. Get it wrong, and there’s always somebody else that might not.
The same thing applied to Klinsmann as national team coach. When the results were there to back him up, he could say whatever he wanted. When thy weren’t, the positivity butted up against those disappointments. Klinsmann’s regular answer was to stay positive while deflecting criticism. That also had a countdown clock for its effectiveness. There’s a way to look at what happened to Klinsmann during and following the November 2016 World Cup qualifiers as misreading the time left on that clock. He got his tone wrong, adding fire to a public perception turning against him.
In fairness, who can blame him? Klinsmann left for Germany and a social engagement with heads of state while American media outlets were calling for his immediate firing. Coming and going on that trip he had plenty of time to think. His approach made sense for him. He went direct, engaging selected media outlets to put across a familiar message. He’s the coach and technical director of the USMNT, not the media and fans calling him out. Trust him to do his job.
This time, it didn’t work. Instead of even a shaky vote of confidence, US Soccer opted to fire their coach. The timing was certainly questionable. Klinsmann had days to consider and engage, something that wouldn’t have happened had US Soccer acted immediately. We already know that’s not the Federation’s style. They had their own clock counting down on making a decision, and it wasn’t public knowledge.
So here we are at the end of the Klinsmann era. Positivity will sub out for pragmatism. The USMNT needs points in the Hexagonal. They need to qualify first. That’s not an overwhelming challenge, but it is the next step. Right now, this is a program moving step by step. That’s not Klinsmann’s positivity. Instead, it’s the result of the situation that brought an end to a way of running the USMNT.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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