COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Jurgen Klinsmann sat on a podium and smiled after guiding the United States into its seventh straight World Cup.
Not to minimize the accomplishment, but the former German star player and coach will be judged not on reaching soccer’s elite tournament, but on how well the United States performs in Brazil next year.
“The team’s success, especially in official competitions and difficult games in Europe has been very good,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said Wednesday, “but I think everyone understands that the World Cup is a different level.”
Beating Mexico by the now traditional “dos a cero” score at Columbus Crew Stadium on Tuesday night, the Americans have now won four straight home qualifiers against El Tri by 2-0.
Klinsmann helped Germany win the 1990 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship, then retired as a player two years later and moved to California with his American wife. He commuted from Orange County to Germany for a two-year stint as coach, leading his nation to the semifinals of the World Cup it hosted in 2006, then quit.
Gulati recruited him later that year to succeed Bruce Arena but couldn’t reach an agreement on his authority. But after the U.S. played listlessly during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Gulati ended Klinsmann’s five-year stretch as coach-in-waiting and hired him at a $2.5 million annual salary to replace Bob Bradley.
Results have been impressive: 25 wins, nine losses and six ties, including the Americans’ first victory over four-time world champion Italy, their triumph at Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium and their first Gold Cup title since 2007. He’s already fifth on the U.S. career wins list, trailing only Arena (71), Bradley (43), Bora Milutinovic (30) and Steve Sampson (26).
“The best thing he’s done is created lots of competition, and so every time you step on the field you have to perform or you’re not going to step on the field the next time,” star attacker Landon Donovan said. “It’s not in a pressure way, but it’s in an accountability way.”
In his first weeks, he stripped players’ names off jersey backs and went to the old soccer method of changing numbers from game to game and assigning the starters Nos. 1-11 based on position. He wanted to encourage competition.
“It’s a pretty good system. It’s the way it works in Europe, like nothing is yours forever,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said then. “I don’t think some of the younger guys quite get it.”
Klinsmann’s methods seem more suited to the U.S. at times than to Germany, which has an entrenched soccer tradition and resistance to change. He was hired to coach Bayern Munich, one of his old clubs, in July 2008 but was fired the following April.
Bayern President Uli Hoeness complained Klinsmann made the club purchase computers to develop PowerPoint presentations used to inform players of game strategy and compared him unfavorably with Jupp Heynckes, who led the team to this year’s Champions League title.
“With Heynckes, we win games for 12.50 (euros), while we spent a lot of money under Klinsmann and had little success,” Hoeness told the Donaukurier newspaper two years ago.
Klinsmann hired Phoenix-based Athletes Performance, a company he worked with during his time with Germany and Bayern. The company develops training and nutritional plans for each player.
And players’ time on the practice field lengthened considerably.
“Maybe two years ago they wondered, ‘What is this all about? All this extra work, all this extra here, extra there.’ Now it’s just normal,” he said. “The players come in, they know there are double sessions waiting for them. The players know what we expect tactically. The players know that there’s another guy behind them in every position, that if he doesn’t give everything he has, the next one steps in and steals him his spot.”
Players buy in, knowing the 49-year-old was a winner during 17 years with top-level clubs. After the U.S. opened the final round of qualifying with a loss at Honduras, Sporting News ran a story headlined “Klinsmann’s methods, leadership, acumen in question.” Eleven players and 11 others with ties to players or the national team — all unidentified — portrayed a team hampered by sniping and critical of Klinsmann’s tactics.
Then the U.S. followed with a 4-0-1 streak in qualifying and a team-record 12-game winning streak this summer.
“He’s a super positive guy. He never lets it show when the chips are down,” Howard said. “And I think we’ve answered the bell a bunch of times: Guatemala in Kansas City, the snow game (against Costa Rica in Colorado), when there was all this internal strife and we hated each other.”
America spent 40 years in soccer’s wilderness, failing to reach the World Cup between 1950 and 1990. Now the nation is much more attuned to the world game, boosted by changes in technology that allow most top European matches to be available live on U.S. television and even mobile telephones.
There would be an outcry if the U.S. failed to qualify for a World Cup.
“I think now it’s expected of us,” Howard said, “but it’s never a guarantee.”