Don Garber is pissed off at Jurgen Klinsmann. Those weren’t his exact words, but when a person of Garber’s stature decides to use the phrase “personally infuriating,” there’s something explosive being left beneath the surface.
At 4:00 p.m. ET on Thursday afternoon, U.S. soccer got a peek at what lies beneath. During a hastily-called teleconference, Garber took aim at Klinsmman, at one point saying the U.S. men’s national team head coach “needs to think very, very hard about how he manages himself publicly.”
The irony couldn’t have been thicker. Here was Major League Soccer’s chief executive — a person with wide-ranging respect who is credited with being a strong consensus-builder internally — summoning the entire U.S. soccer media core to engage in exactly what he found odious about Klinsmann’s behavior.
Garber was taking his beef public, and doing so before he’d been able to speak to Klinsmann. He confirmed as much, saying that he’d also sent a “a very strong letter” to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. According to Garber, other MLS owners had done the same, of their own accord.
But whereas Klinsmann’s criticisms targeted MLS, implicitly denigrating the league as a step back for the likes of Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley, Garber was publicly aiming at the man himself.
“Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league,” Garber explained. “They’re detrimental to the sport of soccer in America and everything we’re trying to do north of the border. Not only are they detrimental, I think they’re wrong.”
From Garber’s point of view, Klinsmann’s recent comments depicted the league as a step back from Europe, one that explained the struggles Bradley has endured on the field since leaving AS Roma (Italy) for Toronto FC this winter.
“Making that decision going from Roma – a Champions League team to Toronto that now seems like they are not even qualifying for the playoffs – it is a huge disappointment,” Klinsmann said on Monday in Boca Raton, Fla.
Garber vehemently disagreed.
“We have a national team coach that in essence is telling players that when [a player] signs for our league, it’s not going to be good for their career,” Garber explained, noting the fact that Klinsmann also selects players for the national team compounds the problem.
“To think that [MLS is] not aligned with our national team’s goals is a.) disappointing, and b.) personally infuriating.”
And thus ignited what’s poised to become the biggest fight in American soccer. Klinsmann, the man tabbed to accelerate U.S. soccer’s progress, against Garber, the person who has played a crucial part in the success of the domestic league.
“I believe everybody needs to be accountable for their behavior,” Garber explained near the beginning of the call, “whether it’s a commissioner, owner, athlete, or national team coach.”
Thursday was Garber’s way of doing so, laying the framework for a conflict that could extend beyond words. For the last 15 years, Garber has also held a seat on U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors. Though Klinsmann’s place in U.S. Soccer is part of president Gulati’s vision, Garber is one of many voices in that room.
“I believe that Jurgen should embrace the vision for the future of the sport,” Garber said. “That, to me, is his job. For him to publicly state issues that he has with Major League Soccer, in my view, is not something that is going to allow him to effectively serve the role as not just coach but as technical director.”
And yet here was Garber, in public, stating the issues he has with the national team coach. Whatever high ground the commissioner had by staying clear of the fray, he was willing to abandon for the sake of the league.
“I will do anything and everything to defend our league, our players, and our owners,” he said, though he didn’t include Klinsmann’s U.S. jobs within that “everything.”
“I am in no way saying what Sunil should be doing with Jurgen as it relates to his employment,” Garber clarified, though his views of the new relationship between MLS and its technical director couldn’t be clearer.
Garber sees the link between MLS and U.S. Soccer as “the core for everything that this league has done,” saying the tandem form “what’s probably been the most successfully partnerships between” league and federation in the word. To see a “disagreement” in that partnership was “frustrating as hell.”
“The facts clearly show that without the league both the depth and the quality of the U.S. player pool would be diminished,” Garber emphasized, alluding to the league’s restored influence on the national team. Without MLS, which contributed nine players to the country’s 2014 World Cup squad, the U.S. player pool “certainly wouldn’t be what it is today.”
It’s an easy case to make, so easy that it was unclear Garber needed to hold today’s call. After all, Klinsmann noting MLS doesn’t meet a UEFA Champions League standards isn’t news. So at multiple times in the session, the commissioner was asked to clarify why he felt slighted by Klinsmann’s unfavorable comparison to Europe. Did Garber really believe MLS now offers a quality of play comparable to, say, Italy (as one reporter asked)?
Garber wouldn’t go that far. His defense was more general: “It is just patently untrue that if you play in Major League Soccer that it will negatively impact your form.”
Michael Bradley watchers may disagree, though Clint Dempsey, another U.S. international Garber frequently discussed, is playing well enough in his first full season for Seattle. Ultimately, it’s impossible to prove whether league quality alone is responsible for a player’s changing performance. Bradley could just be having a down year.
But to have a person of Klinsmann’s prominence draw those conclusions? It’s a message Garber clearly wanted to get out in front of.
“Sending a negative message to any player, and obviously to U.S. players that signing with MLS is not going to be good for their career or good for their form is incredibly detrimental to MLS.” It sends the wrong message to corporate sponsors, Garber said. It sends the wrong message to fans. It’s not “the right dynamic to continue having success in signing international players.”
And of course, as if obligated to interject him into any debate within U.S. soccer, Garber got around to Landon Donovan.
“I regret not saying this at the time,” Garber said, alluding to health issues that preoccupied him at points this year, “I believe Landon should have been in Brazil … because his performance dictated it. If anybody disagrees with it — some of [the press] might, Jurgen clearly does — then his treatment (of Donovan) was inexcusable.”
It was a no-holds-barred session, if bizarrely so. Out of nowhere, Garber was convening the media, igniting a war.
Nothing was off the table, except anything that didn’t address Klinsmann. That, Garber said at the beginning of the call, was the only topic in focus today.
He’d made the decision to go public — to go on the offensive against a man who’d made the mistake of doing the same. The result is a mammoth fissure through the heart of American soccer.