Klinsmann has much at stake as U.S. preps for CONCACAF Cup, Olympics
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Wearing a golf shirt, a tan and his trademark smile, Jurgen Klinsmann appears as relaxed as ever as he slides into the middle seat of a horseshoe-shaped booth at an upscale restaurant not far from his home of the last 18 years. He apologizes for arriving a few minutes late, but the slight delay is understandable. Klinsmann has a lot on his mind.
It's 10 days before the U.S and Mexico will meet at a sold-out Rose Bowl for a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, arguably the biggest game Klinsmann will coach since being hired to manage the Americans four years ago, and certainly the most important since last year's World Cup in Brazil.
It's not just his team he's thinking about, either; shortly before the senior squad takes the field on Saturday, the U.S. U23s will play a match in Salt Lake City for a place in next summer's Olympics.
The two games will serve as nothing less than a referendum on his tenure. "Those moments aren't coming along very often," Klinsmann says. "It's a day that probably will be talked about for quite a long time."
Klinsmann also serves as U.S. Soccer's technical director, of course, and he has identified both tournaments as crucial to the continued development of the national team. In the span of a few hours Saturday, much about the current state of American soccer will be revealed.
"There's a lot at stake," Klinsmann, the smile now gone, says between bites of calamari. "If we don't qualify for the Olympics, we lose another generation of young players. Not qualifying for the Confederations Cup, you lose a huge advantage to prepare for Russia 2018. The older players have a lot at stake because there might come a cut after that. Are we holding on to them through the next year of World Cup qualifiers, or is this the time now to start fresh? It's going to be a huge decision-making moment."
Adding spice to the buildup, none other than Landon Donovan -- who has a checkered history with Klinsmann -- told ESPN that he believes Klinsmann should be axed as coach if they fail to defeat Mexico in Saturday's game.
The outcome of both games rests mostly on the players, to be sure. But there's no question that this is a pivotal juncture for the coach. As much as Klinsmann doesn't want this exclusive interview to be about him, he understands that it always is.
Klinsmann was heavily criticized after the U.S. finished fourth in this past summer's Gold Cup, and for good reason. The Americans failed to click throughout the July tournament -- solely reliant on Clint Dempsey offensively and mistake-prone in the back -- even if they didn't get the benefit of a few controversial calls.
Still, the vitriol directed toward Klinsmann on a regular basis is curious given his record overall. No U.S. coach has a higher winning percentage in competitive games (.734, compared to .677 for Bob Bradley and .674 for Bruce Arena). During his watch, the Americans have triumphed in Germany, Italy, Mexico and the Netherlands for the first time. He's also recruited nine dual-nationals, with varying degrees of impact, to the senior team.
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said after the Gold Cup that Klinsmann's job isn't in jeopardy. That hasn't stopped criticism that has seemed oddly personal and over the top at times.
"You have to be careful when English isn't your first language -- there's lot of subtlety in English for political correctness," says former U.S. keeper Kasey Keller, who was "extremely surprised" by the hand-wringing that followed last month's 4-1 friendly loss to Brazil. "We continue to make strides, and I love the American optimism," Keller says. "We love to think that we're not the little guy anymore. But sometimes we need a reality check."
Klinsmann has often tried to provide one, even if some don't want to hear it. And his refusal to embrace certain aspects of American soccer, such as the college system, is by design.
"An American player is definitely not a finished product by 21, not even 90 percent -- he's definitely more of a late bloomer because of the social environment in the U.S.," Klinsmann says. "In college, there's a hierarchy between freshman and sophomores and seniors. In European and South American clubs, they make no distinction between a player who is 18 or 22."
To understand Klinsmann, you have to know the world that produced him. He was an elite player in an elite soccer nation, one where a top-flight coach lasts less than a year on average. In the cut-throat environment of the Bundesliga, managers are more inclined to play mind games with the media than open up to them about what they could have done better. In any case, Klinsmann stands by his personnel decisions, which, it must be said, have worked out more often than not.
"I think this is part of a coach's job, to help players reach the next level and get more experience and improve," he says when asked about sticking with young center-back Ventura Alvarado, who has struggled at times since making his debut in March. "So even in a Gold Cup or a World Cup qualifier, I'll take that risk to give minutes to someone who maybe is not there yet, but I know it's going to pay off two years from now."
It has before; starting Matt Besler in a qualifier in Mexico City in 2013 certainly helped the Sporting Kansas City defender in Brazil a year later.
The unconventional methods, double training sessions and last-minute schedule changes have rubbed players the wrong way at times, but it has also kept them on their toes. For a stubborn, self-admitted workaholic like Klinsmann, the status quo is an enemy. After all, the gold standard is Europe and South America. It's the U.S. that must adapt.
"I'm not seeing Mexico as our benchmark," Klinsmann says. "I see the top 15 in the world as that."
He admits still being perplexed by the intricacies of NCAA soccer, which he's experiencing first hand this fall with his son, Jonathan, a freshman goalkeeper at the University of California at Berkeley. But he has also become much more familiar over the last four years with the sport's nuances in North America.
"I've learned about the dynamics of soccer in this amazing country, from the grassroots level to the continued growth of the professional game," he said. "I've learned a lot about the region. Playing in the Caribbean and Central America is something Europeans can't understand unless they experience it. So it's been a tremendous learning curve with some ups and downs, like in Honduras in 2013 [a 2-1 World Cup qualifying loss]. But that's part of it. I'm definitely more comfortable now. I see things much clearer than in the beginning."
It's pointed out that when viewed side-by-side, Mexican soccer might be considered superior than the domestic version, even if the Americans are 3-0-3 against their southern neighbors since he took over. El Tri are the defending Olympic champions; the Yanks didn't qualify for London 2012. Liga MX dominates CONCACAF; only two MLS teams have reached a regional final in the last 15 years. Seven Mexicans are competing in the Champions League this season; just one American is.
Add in that the home fans will be heavily outnumbered at the Rose Bowl, and most neutrals would consider Klinsmann's team the underdog on Saturday.
"But if it comes from my end, people think it's looking for an excuse or that I mean it negatively," he said. "Just because I explain the reality doesn't mean my ambitions are any lower."
Team spirit and chemistry have always been the great equalizer for the U.S., and Klinsmann knows that's the key for the Americans to win in Pasadena. It's one of the reasons his 23-man roster for the match is stocked with proven warhorses such as DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones.
"In this kind of game, fitness doesn't matter so much," says Jones, one of several U.S. veterans who recently returned from injury. "Whoever's in that game, with the atmosphere, the importance, is going to be able to run."
While the Mexico tilt will allow Klinsmann to see where his vets stand, the success of the U23s, coached by senior team assistant and former Bayern Munich teammate Andi Herzog, might be even more important. After all, these are the youngsters who will eventually replace the old guard.
"For players who are 21 or 22, the Olympics is biggest stage to show you can make a big jump at club level," Klinsmann said. "Mexico won a gold medal, and it's helped that generation hugely to make the next steps in their careers. If you look at our group that failed to qualify, have they maximized their potential? The talent was there, but they couldn't get their act together."
Despite his carefree manner when we first sat down, it's clear that Klinsmann is feeling some pressure ahead of this weekend. Why wouldn't he be? If both U.S. teams win, it will be a bit of a vindication for Klinsmann, who was hired four years ago on a platform of change. Lose even one match, though, and the program's entire course will be questioned.
"I hope that there's progress being made, that our players believe more and more that they can play with the best teams in the world on a more consistent basis," Klinsmann says. "But this will only happen over a longer period of time."
Will Klinsmann be around to see it? His contract runs through 2018. Asked whether he'd like to stay beyond that, he demurs. He knows the reality of the international game. No coach's job is safe forever. "Hopefully U.S. Soccer and the people here are happy with what we're doing. One day, if you don't give them the results and you don't give them the feeling that this thing is going the right direction, I'll sit down with Sunil."
Either way, the national team will have Klinsmann's fingerprints on it for years to come. And America will be his future, too. "Every time I land in LA, it feels great to be home," he says. Then he smiles, swallows his double espresso, and walks out the door.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.