Imagine a world in which the U.S. men’s national team win every match they’re supposed to win. They’d roll past all the CONCACAF minnows and only ever really do battle with Mexico and in friendlies against South American or European competition. World Cup qualification would be a given — a joke even.
“Will the U.S. beat Guatemala?” one fan would ask. “Oh, I don’t know!” another fan would reply, sarcastically, and then they’d laugh and laugh and laugh as they check their email inboxes for World Cup hotel room confirmations three years before the event while in attendance at an NBA game instead of watching the U.S. because, come on, of course they’re going to win.
In this world, most supporters — and not just the casual ones — only give the team their full attention every four years when they inevitably appear in the World Cup and play matches that are actually interesting. In this world, being a fan of the U.S. men’s national team is boring.
Enter Jurgen Klinsmann — a manager who delivers the varied and unique entertainment U.S. fans and press alike will never admit to craving at this point in the country’s development of the sport. He fosters debates that Americans simply cannot resist and never get sick of, to the benefit of journalists and social media platforms alike.
By keeping his starting XI in a constant state of flux and leaving room for doubt as to whether he knows anything at all about tactics, he gives his critics endless opportunities to tell a World Cup winner with Bundesliga, Premier League, and Serie A experience how he’s doing everything wrong.
As the federation’s technical director, he promises revolution but changes virtually nothing about the country’s globally anomalous youth setup so everyone can continuously argue about how it should be changed.
His European sensibilities fuel tensions between MLS supporters and detractors, even goading the league’s commissioner into teleconference hissy fits. He leaves the country’s greatest ever player behind for a World Cup and recruits young players who have lived their whole lives abroad.
Then there are his results. He wins friendlies against world powers and loses World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Guatemala, which is what happened just last week. And so, in the fourth of five CONCACAF qualifying rounds, in a group with Trinidad and Tobago, Guatemala, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, where only the top two advance, the U.S. sat third through three matches.
This presented the chance to fret about a potentially major drama! Would the U.S. fail to qualify for the World Cup in this stage of the process that should present no trouble whatsoever? Should Klinsmann be sacked? Is he taking U.S. Soccer backwards? Who should be playing and where? Doe the players secretly hate him? What’s wrong with the system? The U-23 team might miss out on the Olympics, too. Klinsmann the technical director is failing them, as well!
Suddenly, the U.S.’s return qualifying match against Guatemala mere days later took on massive importance worthy of scrutiny and emotion. A “Fire Klinsmann” banner (complete with reference to Landon Donovan’s World Cup snub) was flown over the stadium before kickoff as The State of Soccer in America hung in the balance.
And then, with a sensible starting XI that actually had players in their preferred positions, the U.S. won 4–0 as if it was Klinsmann’s plan all along to lose away in order to make things interesting, and then come back and win in front of the energized and paying home support. (UPDATE: ESPN announced that the ratings for the second Guatemala match were their highest ever for the semifinal round of the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers.) Everything was set right again — but not so right that any of the Klinsmann centered debates would be settled.
If the criteria for being a great U.S. men’s national team manager is winning every game and steadily improving the entire system, then Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t great. But if it’s constantly keeping people engaged with a team that isn’t terribly engaging, then he’s the absolute best.