The USA Men’s National Soccer team has a new coach. He’s overseen three games and won none of them. Critics are already taking note, circling like buzzards over an orphaned calf in the desert.
With these unimpressive results, it’s easy for people to wonder what’s he done. Well here’s a start:
- called up new and discarded players, many of Mexican descent
- removed the names from the back of the shirts and gave the starters 1 – 11
- changed the spelling of his own name to make things easier for the media (Jürgen / Juergen / Jurgen)
- changed the fitness trainer and outlined a plan to get our players fitter by sending them to Europe
- encouraged passing and attacking play and physicality / nastiness
- brought in his trusted #2, Martín Vázquez, creating what I think is the first USMNT head coach / assistant pairing where both speak Spanish
- With the German National team, he brought in fitness trainers, sport psychologists and added red jerseys to give a mental edge
- At Bayern Munich, he placed statues of Buddha to try and create an atmosphere of serenity. Remember his wife is Chinese-American.
This is clearly a man who is not afraid to put in his own system.
I find it fascinating that he was hired here to shake things up and simultaneously engender criticism for doing so. I haven’t had his job but I have had some experience with trying to create change. It’s never easy. Machiavelli had it right when he observed that the entrenched will fight tooth and nail while those you may be helping usually wait to see what happens.
The other thing to remember is that the odds of change succeeding is not so much about the new individual brought in; it depends more on the people who are already in the system and the larger market forces at work. In this case we will have to see what the youth system brings us, because the success of a team in the 2014 World Cup is already written in the results of their U20 team. As the saying goes, it takes many years to be an overnight success. Our U-20 team did not qualify for their world cup, losing 2-1 to Guatemala in that country. While that was a tough draw, Guatemala then went to the world cup and went 1-2 with one goal scored and 11 conceded so they weren’t a dominating force on that stage. We don’t have a great youth program and this will tie the hands of anyone coaching the senior side.
The bloggers and columnists look for a quick hit, something to seize on to predict what will eventually happen. The rush to be first, to scoop everyone else creates pressure to publish something right away, regardless of how much of the data has come in. Right now a lot of people are trying to make their bones on the fact that the US is 0 – 2 – 1 under Klinsmann. But there’s a lot to consider before the jury comes in:
- Ratings and outcomes. Coming in the door, let’s examine the ESPN Soccer Power Index. As a national team, we are approximately #35 in the world. (Nate Silver would dispute the “approximately” part). Mexico is #10, we played them at home and drew. Costa Rica is at #39, we hosted them and lost 1-0. Then we traveled to Belgium (#59) and they beat us 1-0. The US team notoriously struggles for wins playing in Europe. If you look at the ratings, how terrible are these results?
- While the scores are are not great news, keep in mind these were friendly matches. In other words, there was no qualification at stake, no prize money, no elimination. In the world of the national team coach, the purpose of a friendly is to experiment. It’s your only chance to try something new where the outcome is insignificant. As I coach I know that it is impossible to try something different and simultaneously press for a win. It can’t be done.
- What did we achieve with these matches? We tried new players and a new style of play. At the same time. Everyone knows that when you make a change, performance can suffer initially,and has to be expected and tolerated. The fact that we were able to try so many new things and keep the matches close is promising.
Change agents often use and hear the phrase “changing the fan belt while the car’s still
running” — it describes the conflict between design and the need for immediate results. While a lot of change methodology is based on the tenets of “unfreeze- change- re-freeze” the challenge is to get the results without stopping the operation. The US men’s team is no different.
Fans, critics and journalists will look for instant results from Klinsmann. Wiser observers and soccer people will recognize that he cannot be assessed in days but rather years. The positive here is that the US does not play a World Cup qualifier until June 2012. This gives Jurgen and his new team ample time to find a roster that can play in the style he wants. Let’s be smart and give him a chance to make his mark.