Controversy, Personnel Shortage Hit U.S Ahead of Crucial WC Qualifiers

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Friday night will be edge-of-your-seat-stuff.

The fallout continues to descend in the wake of Brian Straus’s thunderclap of an article in the Sporting News.

Using mostly anonymous sources connected to the U.S. national team, the story claims that there’s widespread dissatisfaction among U.S. players with coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his staff, and his methods. 

Go read the article if you haven’t, then come back here as we take a look at four issues ahead of tomorrow night’s huge game against Costa Rica (10:00 ET, ESPN).

• Where there’s smoke …

Klinsmann has provoked this sort of reaction at every stop of his brief coaching career. It was common knowledge that Joachim Low handled the X’s and O’s when he was assistant to Klinsmann during Germany’s run to third place in the 2006 World Cup. At Bayern Munich, where Klinsmann failed to last a full season as coach, he was saddled with the same “overtraining, undercoaching” tag U.S. players describe in Straus’s article.

Munich defender Philipp Lahm famously claimed in his autobiography that “the experiment with Klinsmann was a failure. We were only working on our fitness in training. He didn’t care much for tactical stuff.”

• Anonymity is wack 

Straus’s brief “sources were offered anonymity in exchange for their anecdotes, observations and opinions” explanation sort of slipped by unquestioned when the story first hit. But it’s well worth scrolling back to it for another look. Why do they need anonymity? Why can’t they attach their name to their opinions and complaints, or perhaps more importantly, why can’t they bring those directly to the coaches or teammates involved, and work it out internally? Further, what do they hope to accomplish by bringing their complaints to the media? Click here for an interesting take on those questions, or consider midfielder Michael Bradley’s opinion:

“It’s shameful, and it’s embarrassing. I think for every guy who has ever played on a team, you give everything you have … and on every team in the world, not every guy is going to be happy. There’s going to be guys who go back to their room and talk with their roommate about things they wish were different…. that’s normal.

“…But you cross a line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team, outside of the inner circle.”

• Endgame scenarios

Returning to the question of what the anonymous complainers hope to accomplish, well, the answer, it’s safe to assume, is that they want Klinsmann out—sooner rather than later. In fact, Straus’s article closes with the suggestion that Friday night’s game is do-or-die for the German boss—win or auf Wiedersehen.

But how likely is that? We agree that if the coach truly isn’t working out—and if the U.S. fails to get three points either tonight or next Tuesday against Mexico—a change should be made now, while there’s still time to right the ship and qualify. But that depends on USSF head Sunil Gulati and his willingness to admit he made a mistake in hiring Klinsmann. Not only would he have to swallow his pride, but Gulati would also have to have a quick trigger finger, taking decisive action, now, to address the situation. That’s a double tall order.

There’s also the question of who to bring in. The top choice would be LA’s Bruce Arena, followed by Dom Kinnear of Houston. But both of those men are under contract, and fairly comfortable, with their clubs at the moment. There’s no guarantee they’d want to give up their current contentment for an uphill battle with the USMNT.

At the other extreme, the U.S. brass could simply stick with their man and his program. This would create a situation comparable to the one Lahm had in mind in his book when he wrote, ”All the players knew after about eight weeks that it was not going to work out with Klinsmann. The remainder of that campaign was nothing but limiting the damage.” But in this case the damage, to the U.S.’s standing in the world, its progress as a soccer nation, and player confidence, could be pretty severe.

What about a middle path, you say? Well, the disgruntled numpties in the U.S. camp surely have gotten Gulati’s attention. He knows they’re not happy, and if results continue to reflect that, he’ll have to address it. What if he brought in, say, a Dominic Kinnear to be one of Klinsmann’s assistants? Someone who understands the U.S. players’ perspective and who has their respect. It’s possible but again, you’d be asking a guy with a plum position to trade it in for a … less plum position. And there’s the question of people to fit this particular bill. Kinnear is just about the only one. Ben Olsen or Sigi Schmid also come to mind, or possibly Tab Ramos, but it’s not a long list.

All in all, we’d bet that some approximation of the middle path is what unfolds. Of course it depends on….

• How distracted will the team be on Friday—and who the hell is going to start?

While Carlos Bocanegra, Bradley, and Herculez Gomez have all issued some damage-control, ship-righting statements (Gomez called the controversy “cute” compared to the media scrutiny he experiences in Mexico; he also threw in a “teddy bears” and said the U.S. team will be a “better team for it”), the Sporting News story will definitely have an effect on tomorrow night’s game. Whether that effect is damaging or galvanizing remains to be seen.

It’s interesting to witness Bradley come out with his bold statement, and to see Dempsey named captain for the next two games (in the absence of Bocanegra, Tim Howard, and Landon Donovan), if only because it would appear to scratch their names off the list of 11 players who griped to Straus in the story.

The question remains as to whether their leadership will prevail and get the rest of the group to properly focus on the task at hand. Because anything less than three points tomorrow and this controversy only deepens.

Speaking of tomorrow, when you look at the U.S. roster, no clear-cut starting XI presents itself.

The backline is especially confounding. There are only two pure outside backs, Tony Beltran and Justin Morrow, and neither one has ever played in a World Cup qualifier before.

Some observers have suggested that Maurice Edu could be shifted to center back, allowing Geoff Cameron to move to right back, where he plays for Stoke City. That’s all well and good, but (apart from the fact that Cameron has never played RB for the U.S.) it would leave you with a center back pairing that’s never played together before, be it Clarence Goodson and Edu or Omar Gonzalez and Edu.

If Klinsmann sticks with the central pairing he used against Honduras—Cameron and Gonzalez—which might make the most sense, then he has to go with the two newbies on the outside.

The situation is less murky in midfield, but there’s still a good chance that we could see players out of position (either Eddie Johnson or Sacha Kljestan on the left), and a frustrating lack of speed and width. DaMarcus Beasley is a possible antidote to this latter element, but given Klinsmann’s preference for ball-winning central midfielders, Run DMB may not make the field.

There’s a lot of uncertainty heading into this game, but one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be interesting to watch.

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