“While we remain confident that we have quality players to help us advance to Russia 2018, the form and growth of the team up to this point left us convinced that we need to go in a different direction,” Sunil Gulati, U.S. Soccer’s president, said in a statement.
Klinsmann, 52, was a polarizing figure as the United States coach, attracting both praise and disdain from hard-core fans throughout his tenure.
He arrived to much fanfare in 2011, finally agreeing to a contract after Gulati had pursued him on and off for five years. Vowing to elevate the national team program in a way that “suits the American game,” he led the team through a successful qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup. But he was criticized for saying in an article published in The New York Times Magazine that he did not believe the Americans had any chance to win the World Cup, as well as for his decision to leave the popular veteran Landon Donovan off the final squad he took to Brazil and for a string of comments denigrating the American professional league, Major League Soccer, even as it produced nearly half his roster.
Drawn into a very difficult group, the United States beat Ghana, tied Portugal and lost to the eventual winner, Germany, but advanced to the knockout round on goal difference. The Americans were eliminated by Belgium in extra time in the round of 16, nearly winning a match in which they were significantly outplayed.
Some thought Klinsmann’s tenure should have ended then. In many other countries, the national team coach generally keeps a job for no more than one four-year cycle — Klinsmann himself stepped down as coach of the German national team after just two years despite leading his home country to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup — but the United States has often opted for more stability. Gulati actually gave Klinsmann a contract extension for another four years even before a single game was played in Brazil. It was a surprising show of confidence, and Klinsmann also was made technical director of the federation in his new contract, further strengthening his connection to U.S. Soccer.
It did not take long, however, for criticism of Klinsmann to escalate during his second cycle. The previous coach, Bob Bradley, had been fired after a poor performance in the 2011 Concacaf Gold Cup, the continental championship, and while Klinsmann’s team won that tournament in 2013, it was upset in the semifinals by Jamaica in 2015 — the first in a series of poor performances in the kind of important games and tournaments that Klinsmann had long preached were the teams’ most important tests.
Klinsmann’s tactical knowledge, his penchant for using players out of position and his habit of blaming his team — not his team selection or his own game plans — for defeats became perpetual talking points for those agitating for a change.
Klinsmann rarely looked concerned about his job status, however, including after last week’s Costa Rica defeat.
“I’m not afraid,” Klinsmann said in an interview with The Times on Sunday night. “What you need to do is stick to the facts. Soccer is emotional, and a lot of people make conclusions without knowing anything about the inside of the team or the sport. I still believe we will get the points we need to qualify, and I am even confident we could win the group.”
He added: “The fact is, we lost two games. There is a lot of talk from people who don’t understand soccer or the team.”
Klinsmann’s confidence might have been rooted in a faith in Gulati’s penchant for taking the long view. An economics professor at Columbia, Gulati is renowned for rarely allowing emotion to color his decisions on hirings, firings or judgments on the progress of the national team. And by placing so much power in Klinsmann’s control, Gulati effectively had linked his own legacy to the coach.
And yet, still: Even Gulati’s backing of Klinsmann had begun to crack as the team struggled over the past year: the Gold Cup defeat, another in a regional championship game against Mexico late last year, and the recent qualifiers.
“No one has ironclad job security,” Gulati told reporters ominously in June, when a humiliating first-round elimination from the Copa América tournament, played on home soil, was possible. “For coaches and players, it’s about results.”
The comments were notable because they came hours before the United States was to play its second game in the event, a match Klinsmann had declared “must-win” after an opening defeat to Colombia. But Klinsmann’s team won comfortably that day, then beat Paraguay and Ecuador in successive make-or-break matches before being drubbed by Argentina in the semifinals, a match that showed just how far the United States remains from the upper echelon of international soccer.
Klinsmann was a productive striker for the German national team and a host of top club teams, and he was part of Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning team, scoring three goals in the tournament.
He began his coaching career in 2004 with Germany, which was coming off a poor European championship. Amid criticism of his methods — some of which were labeled too American — he led the team to a third-place finish in the World Cup his country hosted.
Klinsmann’s legacy with U.S. Soccer will include the integration of young talents like Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin into the national team, but also his eager recruitment of numerous players from Germany and other countries who were eligible for the United States team because of their American lineage.
That process had been in use for decades before Klinsmann was hired as a means of strengthening the United States player pool, but it drew the ire of some fans and also prominent U.S. Soccer figures like the women’s star Abby Wambach and even Arena.
A vocal proponent of American soccer, Arena has long been an opponent of such additions; in 2013, he said, “Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans.” That comment, which predated a similar one by Wambach by two years, appeared to call into question the patriotism and commitment of foreign-born American citizens.
After Wambach was roundly criticized for her remarks, including by at least one member of the men’s team, Arena expanded on his comments earlier this year. But his feelings still seemed to favor vigilance over outreach when it came to Americans born abroad.
“Our country’s a melting pot,” Arena said in April in an interview with the broadcaster Alexi Lalas, “so to say that you need to be born in the United States to play for the national team is a ridiculous point of view. But, having said that, I think that if you play for the national team, regardless of your background and how you got that passport, it’s got to be important to you.”
If Arena returns to U.S. Soccer as Klinsmann’s replacement, it will be from a successful nine-year tenure as coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy, the second team (after D.C. United) that he has led to multiple championships in Major League Soccer.
His stint leading the national team from 1998 to 2006 made him the coach with the most wins in team history, with 71 wins in eight years. The quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup — in which the Americans beat Portugal in the group stage, knocked off Mexico in the round of 16 and played Germany very close in the quarterfinals — was the best showing by the United States since 1930. But Arena was fired after the United States failed to make it out of the group stage in an ugly showing at the 2006 World Cup, with Arena taking widespread criticism for his tactical choices as well as some personnel decisions.
After the tournament, he returned to M.L.S., spending about 18 months coaching the Red Bulls — a pairing that never quite worked — before taking over the Galaxy, with whom he won three M.L.S. titles from 2011 to 2014.
The Americans’ next scheduled games are two more World Cup qualifiers, home to Honduras and away to Panama, in March.
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