Jurgen Klinsmann and Jill Ellis have led the United States’ men’s and women’s national teams into what’s quietly become a very important summer, one that sees each of the country’s senior-level teams tasked with verifying its place in world soccer’s pecking order. Set to face top-ranked Germany today in the World Cup semifinals, Ellis has the unenviable task of doing what one of her predecessors, Pia Sundhage, could not and deliver a world title. Soon after that tournament’s over, Klinsmann will be asked to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup and vindicate the U.S. as the preeminent men’s team in its region. Should each team fail to meet expectations, U.S. Soccer will have to reevaluate not only it programs’ trajectories but what each coach can do to put their teams back on course.
In that sense, the coaches have come to embody more than the mere titles assigned to their posts. Brought in as counterpoints to the coaches they replaced, Klinsmann and Ellis are symbolic of bold decisions the federation made in recent rears. One tasked with revolution, the other preservation, each coach’s performance will be a greater reflection on U.S. Soccer than the managers themselves. This is the summer where the federation may be proven right or wrong.
Consider the paths U.S. Soccer has set its programs down. By replacing Bob Bradley with Klinsmann four years ago, the federation passed on the future of a proven model’s growth in favor of a revolution, a stylistic and cultural one that has produced mixed results. Though the U.S. men advanced at the World Cup last summer, some still see the way it did so as a step back. The U.S. may have made it out of the tournament’s toughest group, but some still see games against Belgium, Germany and Ghana as examples of a team being badly out-played.
On the women’s side, U.S. Soccer made a different decision. In dismissing former head coach Tom Sermanni from his role in April 2014, the federation elected to cut its other stylistic shift short. When it appointed Ellis, the program went back to an approach, both in leadership and playing style, that helped secure gold at the 2012 Olympics. Now, with that approach having become a target for criticism, the 2015 World Cup has become a type of referendum. Can the ways that produced success under Sundhage keep up with modern soccer?
The world has pushed the sport in a very clear direction, one that emphasizes possession, midfield play and extreme pressure defensively. This has spanned both genders and while teams can do it in different ways, those attributes characterize most of the best teams in both the club and international worlds. It’s a movement that was in full flight when U.S. Soccer appointed both Klinsmann and Ellis, but upon evaluation of both programs and where they stood, U.S. Soccer still decided to push the men and women in different directions. The men would pursue the more modern approach. The women, however, would go back to what worked.
As different, almost conflicting, as the two decisions were, they were both born from clear goals. The men were to establish themselves as the unquestioned best team in CONCACAF, capable of playing on the front foot so it could build to challenge the best in the world. And the women, though blunt determination if necessary, were to support its claim as best in the world. Starting with today’s women’s match against top-ranked Germany, the choices the federation made can start to be judged.
If the programs’ plans come to fruition, the U.S. will end the summer with new world and CONCACAF titles. But what if it goes wrong? What if Klinsmann’s side struggles at the Gold Cup, either going out before the final or disappointing with the tournament on the line, like it did under Bradley in 2011? And what if Germany wipes the floor with Ellis’ squad, making everyone’s greatest fears a reality? What if both the revolution and the reversion fall short?
A disappointing summer would obviously bring heat upon the managers, but it could bring even more criticism upon U.S. Soccer. It’s the body that decided to overhaul a men’s program that didn’t necessarily need significant changes. It’s the one that put everything in Klinsmann’s hands. After July’s Gold Cup, Klinsmann will have had a full cycle to show progress, something that won’t be evident if the U.S. can’t defend its CONCACAF title.
U.S. Soccer is also the one who decided to undo Sermanni’s work and revert to an old system with the women. It decided to cut that evolution short, after 16 months, and restore leaders that had been in place under Sundhage: Ellis, as well as assistant Tony Gustavsson. It was a move that reeked of a previously earned arrogance, but it’s one that blows up in U.S. Soccer’s face if the team’s stars can’t produce another legendary result. If Germany proves the world has passed the U.S., the blame for that lapse extends far up U.S. Soccer’s organizational chart.
And if the teams succeed? That’s what these risks were about. If Ellis helps guide the U.S. to victory in Canada, it will be a rebuke to every critic who has derided the team’s style over the past 14 months. And if Klinsmann produces the title Bradley couldn’t deliver four years ago? No matter the fuzziness of the details, the win would be an undeniable sign of progress. U.S. soccer would not only have its payoff. It would have a measure of vindication.
That is what’s on the line for U.S. Soccer. It is, potentially, an affirmation of the federation’s choices and the programs’ recent past, as well as its long-term future. It could also be a time that proves the past several years were more than just a mistake, but a time that sent each program on the wrong course. And the blame for that would not fall on Klinsmann, or Ellis, or any coach in the program. It would fall upon all of U.S. Soccer and force not just major changes to the programs, but maybe even a major reevaluation of how the programs’ biggest decisions are made.
The U-20 World Cup is done. The Women’s World Cup has reached its telling moment. The Gold Cup is looming and the U-17 World Cup and Olympic qualifying are on the horizon. And if the stakes of those tournaments weren’t enough, the results will pale in comparison to what we could learn about U.S. Soccer.