Friday, August 17, 2018
Sports

As U.S. Soccer weighs Jurgen Klinsmann's future, he says 'I'm not afraid'

Jurgen Klinsmann, whose status as coach of the U.S. men's soccer team is under intense scrutiny, said Sunday night that he is "very comfortable" with his position and that he believes those calling for him to be fired are "being disrespectful" and "ignoring the facts" of his tenure leading the team.

Speaking in a telephone interview with the New York Times, Klinsmann — who had recently returned from Berlin, where he attended a state dinner last week with President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, the chancellor of his native Germany — said he had exchanged text messages with Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, and that he expected to talk with Gulati in the coming days.

That discussion will take place in the shadow of mounting criticism of Klinsmann's performance and after the Americans' two recent losses in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, including a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Tuesday that has many fans calling on Gulati to fire Klinsmann.

"I'm not afraid," Klinsmann said. "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 (for the World Cup), and I am even confident we could win the group.

"The fact is, we lost two games. There is a lot of talk from people who don't understand soccer or the team."

Klinsmann, who is known for his upbeat disposition, could be overly optimistic. In countries that expect to qualify for the World Cup, as the United States does every four years, starting the final round of qualifying with two losses generally means the coach's job is in jeopardy. Klinsmann acknowledged that he understands that.

If Gulati decides to replace Klinsmann, it could be announced this week.

This could be an ideal time to make a switch: The United States does not play its next World Cup qualifier until March, which would allowed a new coach several months to get acclimated. Bruce Arena, who coached the national team from 1998-2006, is the top candidate to replace Klinsmann if Gulati decides to make a change.

Even Klinsmann conceded that he understands the criticism — "I am not saying I have nothing to be blamed for," he said — and in many other countries, he most likely would have been fired after a disappointing flameout in the 2015 Gold Cup, the regional championship tournament the United States hosted, or after his team's loss to Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff later that year. That Gulati, who pursued Klinsmann for five years before hiring him in 2011, has stuck with him this long is indicative of how much Gulati has staked on Klinsmann, a former German national team striker.

Yet now, as calls for change from both inside and outside U.S. Soccer are growing, the potential for a change is significant. Many believe that Klinsmann's constant tinkering with lineups and formations has kept the team from growing tactically, and some believe that the collapse by the Americans in the second half against Costa Rica was indicative of Klinsmann's no longer being able to motivate his players.

Klinsmann directly disputed that charge Sunday, saying he did not believe any players quit against Costa Rica, even as they gave up three goals in a second-half capitulation.

"There was nobody giving up at that time," Klinsmann said. "That was a normal emotional situation when things go wrong. When they get the second goal there, it was like a knock in your neck. I played those games many, many times. The whole stadium goes bananas. It's totally human to put your head down for a second. And then they counter us for two more. Those games will always happen. We just couldn't stop it, but the players did not stop trying."

Judging the team's arc in 2016 only on those games, Klinsmann said, would be unfair. He said that this year has been "very, very successful" for the team, citing the Americans' run to the semifinals of the Copa America and the development of younger players such as Bobby Wood and John Brooks.

That Brooks, a defender, had two rough performances against Mexico and Costa Rica — particularly Costa Rica — is, Klinsmann said, "part of the development process," and it is why Klinsmann argued that making a coaching change would be a mistake.

"We are coaching a team through a transitional phase," he said. "We still have to break in younger players. We still have to look for leadership for the team. There are still a lot of technical and chemistry challenges ahead that are normal in this time period. And you put the final pieces together as you go towards Russia, which I am absolutely sure we will do."

From the very beginning of his relationship with Gulati, Klinsmann said, he has stressed that patience was crucial, a point he will no doubt try to make to Gulati when they speak about his present situation.

"I always made it clear to Sunil, if you really want to move up to the top 15 in the world, you need to have consistency in what you're doing," Klinsmann said. "If you react emotionally, you will become a roller coaster."

Many would argue that Gulati and others at U.S. Soccer have given Klinsmann more than enough time. And though Klinsmann is confident, a bad result in the next qualifying game — at home against Honduras, with a trip to Panama only days later — would make things even more tenuous. And, at that time, a coaching change on the fly would be especially difficult.

That is why it is expected that a resolution on the coaching situation will be reached soon. Klinsmann will either receive a vote of confidence or be fired. Either way, it has been an emotional few days for Klinsmann, who traveled to Germany from Costa Rica and said he spent "an amazing" 21/2 hours with Obama and other world leaders.

He presented Obama with a German national team jersey with the No. 44 on the back and gave Merkel a U.S. jersey with the No. 1 on it. Even Obama asked Klinsmann a question about the national team situation.

"He said, 'It didn't go well down there in Costa Rica, did it?' " Klinsmann recalled. "And I said, 'Nope, Mr. President, it didn't go well at all.' "

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