Another tournament under Jurgen Klinsmann has come and gone. Once again, it seems the US is no closer to realizing the end goal Klinsmann himself set on that podium five years ago. The tournament provided all the staples of the Klinsmann era: there were roster questions. There was a tough group. There were lineup questions. The US was unable to “take it to” a top team when it mattered. There was Klinsmann throwing players under the bus, essentially absolving himself from blame. So the US “secured” fourth place (seriously, US twitter account?), but there are still legitimate debates to be had about how this largely successful Copa impacts Klinsmann’s legacy as USMNT manager. Those debates are worth having, sure, but allow me to present you with an alternative viewpoint: Klinsmann’s legacy with US soccer will rest solely on what he can do to fix the program’s development issues.
We’ve long heard about Klinsmann’s lack of tactical nous and that’s been apparent again during his USMNT reign. Look no farther than when the US looked lost against Argentina, devoid of any kind of plan against the best team in world. If you simply look at the US’ results under Klinsmann without dissecting the process, the picture is quite good. The team advanced out of the group of death at the World Cup and the Copa, winning a knockout game in the latter tournament (2015 Gold Cup? What’s that?). Are there players he’s not calling up (COUGH COUGH BENNY FEILHABER COUGH) who could make a difference in those results? Sure, but we’re splitting hairs here. Feilhaber wasn’t fixing the problems the US had against Argentina last week. The player pool isn’t as dire as some make it out to be, but it’s also not a collection of talent good enough to win a World Cup or truly, consistently compete with the top teams in world. The reality is our youth development isn’t anywhere near the level of an Argentina or even a Belgium. We won’t be winning a World Cup until it improves.
With that in mind, it’s worth remembering fixing the development setup was part of what Klinsmann was hired to do. Klinsmann led Germany to a well-received third place finish at the 2006 World Cup, but the same tactical questions and criticisms materialized. What he’s given the most credit for is revamping Germany youth development into a system that’s produced the likes of Mario Gotze and Julian Draxler and blooding players in ‘06 that went on to become cornerstones on the 2015 team that won the World Cup. We hear all the time “we (the US) have a population of more than 300 million, we should be producing better players). That argument misses the point. It requires a system that reaches as much of that population as possible and then offers young players elite coaching to take advantage of a large population. Iceland’s population of just 300,000 has been the focus of the country’s incredible success at the Euros, but it doesn’t take too much digging to understand why the team’s been so successful.
So we’ll continue to discuss Klinsmann’s success in real time, and it’s important to do so. But I’ll be judging Klinsmann’s success or failure 10 years down the line. On whether we’re producing our own Gotze’s and Draxler’s and maybe even the fabled “American Messi.” Then again, maybe that’s the complete wrong way to think about it. After all, Klinsmann says I and the rest of the media don’t understand soccer anyway.