Comparing USMNT's World Cup head coaches
Two weeks from now, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will become just the sixth man to lead the national team into a World Cup since 1990, the year the American squad returned to the event following a 40-year absence.
Klinsmann and his five predecessors each arrived at a different stage of the sport's development in the United States during the past two decades-plus. Each brought his own ideas, formed by his unique background. And each had varying degrees of success at the planet's biggest sporting event.
Those results are well documented.
To get some insight into what made each manager tick, though, one really needs to talk to those who played for them. So we asked nine current and former national teamers who played for multiple U.S. bosses to share their memories for an oral history. (We asked more than that, actually, but several former Yanks declined to discuss their experiences on the record.)
Here's what they said:
Coach: Bob Gansler
World Cup: Italia '90
Kasey Keller, backup goalkeeper: "Bob got us qualified but it was really a no-win situation in Italy. The majority of us were college kids -- amateurs -- and we were just kind of thrown to the wolves."
Peter Vermes, forward and captain: "He was an X's and O's guy, he was a teacher, and he was also a very good identifier of talent. But we were lacking in experience, so he had to work with what he had."
Keller: "He was kind of [an] authoritarian. We had a young team that needed discipline and direction."
Vermes: "He had his finger on us, and you may not be able to do that with a more experienced group of players. But you also don't need to, because you can let them police themselves a little bit more."
Keller: "We lost 5-1 to Czechoslovakia in the first game. What Gansler was able to do after was to make us understand that we needed to adjust to keep some sort of pride, because we couldn't quite compete. To be able to change things around that quickly and give Italy a good game, in Rome, was a credit to Bob. He did it with discipline."
Vermes: "For our team, he chose guys who had very strong character. We needed it. At that time, we couldn't have survived any other way."
Coach: Bora Milutinovic
World Cup: USA '94
Alexi Lalas, defender: "Bora was notorious for asking questions as a form of teaching. He would put a scenario up on the board and put the ball in a certain place, and then ask you to put your 11 players in proper position. Then he'd have someone else do it. Early on, there would be 20 different versions of what the right positioning should be. By the time we got to the World Cup, everybody was on the same page. He wanted all of us to have the same basic template of how he wanted to set up. Tactically, we knew how we wanted to move as a team."
Mike Sorber, midfielder: "He gave us different ideas to think about. The U.S. had always been about hard work and fitness -- kind of an [American] football mentality."
Lalas: "He broke the game down, and my game down, and built it back up. He made me focus on details that I either never recognized or thought mattered.
"His point was you should be looking for things, that there are a million things that are going on that can inform your decisions and make you a better player."
Sorber: "With his experience -- Bora coached Mexico to a good run in '86 and he did well with Costa Rica in 1990 -- he was able to provide more insight. It was invaluable. He knew what World Cup games were like, so he could paint a good picture of what we were stepping into. He made us understand that while you can't control the referee, the weather, the fans, what you can control is how the group thinks and operates together.
"We knew he believed in us; we beat England in 1993, and we beat Mexico at the Rose Bowl in front of 90,000 fans just before the tournament. By the time we stepped on the field for our first game against Switzerland, we'd pieced all those little things together."
Coach: Steve Sampson
World Cup: France '98
Lalas: "The transition to Steve was successful. Whenever an assistant coach steps in, he has the benefit of seeing what didn't work well before."
Sorber: "At first he was the interim coach. Then he got the job, but he was in a tough situation. Everybody knew that he wasn't the first choice."
Lalas: "He immediately changed some of the frustrating things Bora did, whether it was the long practices, the questions that didn't really have answers, whatever. And I think we really enjoyed that for a period of time, if you look at the results. That was part of the reason he ended up with the job. "
Vermes: "Steve was very organized. He had a great assistant in Clive Charles and a good connection to the team. I thought Steve definitely analyzed everything, but sometimes maybe put too much emphasis on the opponent and not enough on his own team."
Lalas: "He had a wonderful humility at the beginning. He said he didn't have all the answers, that he was going to let us do our thing, but that he was going to have to make decisions and hoped we respected him. It wasn't an authoritarian-type of approach -- we'd had that already. He recognized that he needed to be hands-off from the beginning. It was a freedom that a lot of us I think responded to."
Sorber: "When he became coach, the dynamics of the relationship changed. It wasn't that Steve changed, it was that his job had. The federation probably didn't show enough support for him. I think he felt he had to make his mark."
Vermes: "I didn't make the final team so I didn't experience the stuff that went on in France, but managing a team is never an easy situation. If you have 23 guys on a roster and only 11 play, the other 12 guys are pissed off at you. The majority of the time, there's two sides to the conversation. Everybody has a little bit of responsibility on how that camaraderie went."
Sorber: "Sampson also had to deal with guys who would comment that he'd never played at the highest level, things like that. Eventually it became a distraction."
Lalas: "The World Cup is the ultimate proving ground. It ratchets up the pressure, makes you think and rethink things. You can point to dropping [John] Harkes, you can point switching to the 3-6-1, but sometimes time gets you to look at things in a different way.
"I have a good relationship with Steve now. I was incredibly angry in France, but we all make mistakes. I think the massive changes that were made took away the best part of who we were. A whole group of us who played in 1994 never got to play, and a lot of us were in the prime of our careers. We finally had that professional experience many of us didn't four years earlier. That was disappointing.
"Had it gone great, Steve would have been looked at as a visionary. But it didn't, and on top of the normal criticism that you'd get, he'd made some bold and controversial choices. Steve and I have talked about this. We all could've made different decisions along the way."
World Cups: South Korea/Japan 2002, Germany 2006
Jimmy Conrad, defender: "Bruce made you feel like you could beat anybody. You walked into the game with some swagger. He'd be realistic: 'These guys might be better than you, but f--- it. Let's go show them what we're all about.' Maybe that didn't resonate for everybody on the team, but it resonated for me."
Eddie Johnson, forward: "Besides being a great motivator, he gave us a lot of freedom. But he expected us not to abuse it. It was like a parent -- he wasn't going to be hard on you until you break that trust."
Tim Howard, goalkeeper: "Bruce was very hands-off. He would coach training sessions, but he would allow freedom of expression for individual players in terms of kind of letting guys do what they needed to do to prepare themselves to be ready."
Conrad: "He wasn't over the top with strategy and tactics -- that was a part of it -- but that wasn't the main part of his message. He was just very clear in our roles. 'This is what I need you to do,' he'd say."
Howard: "In the long run, that helped to have guys who were really excited to play for him."
Conrad: "From a defensive perspective, the two center backs decided when to step or drop, and everyone had to follow. If our shape wasn't right or we were getting stretched out, we had to make the call to drop off.
"So for guys who had been around, like Claudio Reyna or Brian McBride, they knew the only voices they needed to hear were ours. It makes things easier. That's how clear and concise his communication is. It really took away any gray area."
Johnson: "He was laid-back, man. His national team camps were pretty relaxed compared to Jurgen's and Bob Bradley's."
Conrad: "Maybe I look at him with rose-colored glasses because he gave me my opportunity to play in a World Cup, but his success at every level speaks for itself. It's not a coincidence we overachieved at times under Bruce."
Coach: Bob Bradley
World Cup: South Africa 2010
Howard: "Compared to Bruce, Bob was much more hands-on in terms of trying to figure out the best way to form team chemistry. He had his finger on the pulse, feeling out every guy, making sure motivation levels were right, making sure the chemistry was right."
Johnson: "Bob was more into the little details: How you came into camp, your body language. It was good for me because it made you realize a lot of things about myself. It was the sort of thing you don't appreciate until you don't have it anymore. I learned a lot under him."
Alejandro Bedoya, midfielder: "Bob gave me my first chance with the national team, and he taught me a lot. Trying to get him to crack a smile was a little bit tough, but he was a great coach in every aspect."
Chris Wondolowski, forward: "Coach Bradley was one of the best defensive-minded tacticians I've seen. His attention to detail was amazing."
Howard: "He had his ideas about how he wanted us to play and we tried to execute that. I thought we did well."
Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann
World Cup: Brazil 2014
Howard: "Jurgen's just a complete outside-the-box thinker. He very much has a formula, and he expects everyone to buy into it. And he doesn't dwell too much on the other teams -- of course you have to study the other team and be prepared in your game plan -- but he's very much focused on us.
"He always sees the bright side in terms of big games, big moments. He wants you to enjoy the moment, the experience as much as you can. He wants you to enjoy playing in these games, because they're exciting."
Johnson: "He was one of the best strikers of his time, so I'm like a sponge. It's huge to be able to ask things of someone who has been there and done it."
Howard: "He's lifted the World Cup, so he can say something and not have you question it. When he says it's a big game, to go enjoy it, it's not like he hasn't played in big games. He wasn't fazed by them -- yes he was probably anxious and nervous -- but he took it head on and he challenged himself and his teammates and I think that's what good teams do."
Bedoya: "Jurgen being a former player at the highest level, he's been able to give me a great confidence in the way I play and everything else. He has a great soccer mind, and he does a lot for everybody in terms of growing every player's confidence."
Johnson: "When he threw me out wide on the left in my first game back with the national team in 2012, in Antigua, I was like, 'What the f---?' But he saw something in me that other coaches didn't see. He said, 'Don't worry, you'll be fine.' At first I wasn't sure. But in my head I'm like, 'This is Jurgen Klinsmann, he's won the World Cup. If he's confident in me, I can only be confident in myself.'"
Wondolowski: "Off the field, I think he's found a great balance in that he knows that we're adults and we're professionals. He knows that he can give us a bit of freedom, but he also makes sure we know we can't go crazy because every day is treated like game day. You can't be out at a club when you have empty-stomach runs at 7 a.m."