The state of the USMNT ahead of the Hex

Jun 25, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; United States manager/head coach Jurgen Klinsmann against Colombia during the third place match of the 2016 Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 25, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; United States manager/head coach Jurgen Klinsmann against Colombia during the third place match of the 2016 Copa America Centenario soccer tournament at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Jurgen Klinsmann is now in his sixth year in charge of the USMNT. What progress has he made?

After five and a half years at the helm of the USMNT, it is becoming increasingly difficult to point out a well-defined path to success under Jurgen Klinsmann’s leadership. There have been some memorable games, and an infusion of young talent has given fans hope for the next World Cup and beyond. But there have also been moments of pure embarrassment (the 2015 Gold Cup), and lately there has been a general malaise about the direction of the program. Let’s examine the general mood of the program ahead of key World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica.

The CONCACAF six-team round robin qualifying round (the Hex) kicks off with USA playing Mexico, the biggest game of the qualifying cycle. The game will be played in Columbus, OH, the home of the original Dos a Cero and the scene of many victorious nights for the USMNT.

The state of the program

Klinsmann took the job in the summer of 2011 with grand promises of revamping the entire US Soccer system and bringing over modern soccer, based on possession, pressure and quick passing. This seemed like a very tall order at the time, yet US fans were enthralled. There was a genuine feel of optimism, a genuine hope that with a successful, fresh and, perhaps most importantly, European manager and technical director, the USMNT glass ceiling would be shattered.

A crop of German-American players were brought into the mix: Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Terrance Boyd, John Brooks. There was a real sense of excitement in the air. New players with a winning attitude and who plied their trade on European soil were coming in to complement the existing talent (Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard). Sam’s Army believed.

Some of Klinsmann’s additions panned out. Jones, Johnson and Brooks are still very much key parts of the national team. I shudder at the thought of a back line devoid of Brooks and Johnson. But not everyone panned out. The Boyd and Alfredo Morales experiments certainly didn’t work out, however, and the jury’s still out on Julian Green and Danny Williams.

Overall, it’s hard to deny Klinsmann’s recruitment of German-American talent has had a positive impact on the USMNT program. However, this is where things start to get sticky. Throughout his tenure, Klinsmann has shown tactical and selection tendencies that defy logic. It is now late enough in his tenure that we have enough data points to assess some clear patterns.

Forcing players out of their natural position

Enter Michael Bradley, perhaps the most valuable and significant player of this generation. For whatever reason, Klinsmann envisioned Bradley as an attacking midfielder. This strategy failed to reap benefits, with Bradley looking out of his element in the creative, constructive phase of the game. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise: Bradley has never played attacking midfield at any of his club teams.

Bradley is the most notorious example in a long list that includes Alejandro Bedoya , who has been forced to play in left midfield despite only playing right or central midfield for his club all season, and DeAndre Yedlin, who has been forced into a right midfield/winger role, despite never playing there for his club.

Odd roster selections

Michael Orozco is the poster child here. Despite not playing a single minute for his club team in the spring campaign, Orozco was a regular fixture in the national side. Ventura Alvarado follows closely behind. The Club America man played sporadically for his club, yet he was also a regular fixture in Klinsmann’s rotation, despite numerous examples of comical defending while wearing the USMNT jersey.

But perhaps the biggest and most valid complaint is Klinsmann’s stubborn attitude when it comes to not selecting homegrown talent deserving of a chance. Chance is the operative word here. As in opportunity. Klinsmann has shown a complete disregard for MLS-based players, regardless of their performances or form. It’s inexcusable that players who have shined in MLS, plying their trade in positions of need for the USMNT, were completely overlooked.

Benny Feilhaber could be carving up entire defenses in MLS, but he’ll never get a shot with the national team. Lee Nguyen has been completely overlooked in favor of the likes of Chris Wondoloski, Graham Zusi and Brad Davis. Only through happenstance (injuries to other players and lack of other options) was Sasha Kljestan able to get called up by Klinsmann.


Add into the mix Klinsmann’s recent tendencies to throw not only individual players, but the entire youth system (which he is in charge of!) under the bus, and the picture starts to look grim.

“That talent is not there yet when it comes to the national team, when it gets to big tournaments, when it gets serious. Whatever path they took the last two years, we’ve got to make it clear to them you’ve got to do more. You’ve got to live differently, got to sleep differently, feed yourself differently. You’ve got to train longer, train extra sessions. You’ve got to become physically stronger, got to be nastier in training sessions. You’ve got to become a man.”  (Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2016).

You have to wonder about Klinsmann’s ability to inspire young talent after that kind of declaration.

The future

Is there hope for the future? Most certainly. Cristian Pulisic, the 18-year-old tearing up the Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund, has all the potential to be a superstar on the World Cup stage. There are other young players such as Cameron Carter-Vickers and Matt Miazga who may turn into world-class center-backs, shoring up the USMNT back line for many years to come. Jordan Morris looks to be an absolute force as a forward/winger.

I am not entirely sure the issue will be lack of talent. The US system will always be well positioned to churn out young talent. At this point the main concern is the ability of the coach and technical director to inspire, groom talent and to select the right pieces to build the best product on the field. The latest trends are not encouraging — there is, in short, a feeling this team can do better, can extract more out of the available pool of talent.

Next: Predicting the USMNT starting XI vs. Mexico

A successful start in the World Cup qualifying will go a long way in restoring hope and regenerating the kind of optimism we had back in July 2011, when Klinsmann first took over.