NEW YORK – In a sign of just how much American soccer has grown up, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after a pair of losses in the final round World Cup qualifying.
Six days after a 4-0 loss at Costa Rica dropped the Americans to 0-2, Klinsmann was terminated after nearly 5 1/2 years during a meeting Monday at a Los Angeles hotel with U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and Secretary General Dan Flynn.
Los Angeles Galaxy coach Bruce Arena is the favorite to succeed Klinsmann, and his hiring could be announced as early as Tuesday. Arena coached the national team from 1998 to 2006.
Gone are the days when U.S. coaches were immune to the win-now mentality that permeates soccer. Qualifying resumes when the U.S. hosts Honduras on March 24 and plays four days later at Panama, and the USSF is expecting a quick turnaround.
“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,” Gulati said in a statement. “With the next qualifying match in late March, we have several months to refocus the group and determine the best way forward to ensure a successful journey to qualify for our eighth consecutive World Cup.”
A former star forward for Germany who has lived mostly in Orange County with his American wife since his retirement as a player in 1998, Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley in July 2011. He led the team to the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and the second round of the 2014 World Cup, where the Americans lost to Belgium in extra time.
The USSF announced in December 2013 a four-year contract extension through 2018, but the successful World Cup was followed by poor performances. The U.S. was knocked out by Jamaica in last year’s Gold Cup semifinals and lost to Mexico in a playoff for a Confederations Cup berth. The team rebounded to reach this year’s Copa America semifinals before losing to Argentina 4-0.
But this month Mexico beat the Americans 2-1 at Columbus, Ohio, in the first home qualifying loss for the U.S. since 2001.
And last week in Costa Rica, the Americans were stunned by their largest margin of defeat in qualifying since 1980. They dropped to 0-2 for the first time in the hexagonal, as the final round of qualifying in North and Central America and the Caribbean is known.
While there is time to recover, given the top three teams qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia and the fourth-place finisher advances to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 team, players seemed confused by Klinsmann’s tactics, such as a 3-4-1-2 formation used at the start against the Mexicans.
“Today we made the difficult decision of parting ways with Jurgen Klinsmann,” Gulati said. “There were considerable achievements along the way … but there were also lesser publicized efforts behind the scenes. He challenged everyone in the U.S. Soccer community to think about things in new ways, and thanks to his efforts we have grown as an organization and expect there will be benefits from his work for years to come.”
Gulati planned a Tuesday telephone news conference to discuss the switch. The U.S. had not changed coaches in the middle of qualifying since the USSF made the position a full-time job and hired Bob Gansler in 1989 to replace Lothar Osiander, who also at the time was a waiter at a San Francisco restaurant.
Klinsmann made controversial decisions, such as dropping Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster while taking along relatively inexperienced players such as John Brooks, Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin. Brooks and Green were among five German-Americans on the 23-man U.S. World Cup roster, which drew criticism from some in the American soccer community.
He went 55-27-16, including a U.S.-record 12-game winning streak and victories in exhibitions at Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. He has worked in the past year to integrate more young players into the lineup, such as teen midfield sensation Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris.
Arena, a 65-year-old wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010. He coached the University of Virginia from 1978-95, then coached D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer’s first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. As U.S. coach, he led the Americans to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals in the team’s best finish since 1930.
He was let go after the team’s first-round elimination in 2006. Gulati unsuccessfully courted Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany and the 1996 European Championship with Germany, then coached his nation to the 2006 World Cup semifinals.
When Gulati and Klinsmann couldn’t reach an agreement, the USSF hired Bradley, who coached the team to the second round of the 2010 World Cup. A year later, the Americans stumbled in the Gold Cup, and Klinsmann replaced Bradley.
Arena coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, ‘12 and ‘14.
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