The Klinsmann Kerfuffle: People are arguing, but nobody's wrong

I guess we should avoid putting Don Garber and Jurgen Klinsmann together at the next fancy pants dinner party, right? A little tension between them? Ha! Mark that down as “rank understatement.”

More accurately: The MLS commissioner is on the warpath about the U.S. national team boss’s unflattering views on the league, and the residue is a riveting public spat between two of the domestic game’s most powerful figures.

This “Klinsmann kerfuffle” is unprecedented in the States … and fascinating! And you know what? Neither of these guys is wrong.

Not exactly, anyway.

In some ways, this is just the game growing up – the place where league interests and national team interests inevitably diverge. It’s just the kid leaving home.

While the conflict may be explainable, it’s so compelling because we hardly ever see it. Seriously, outside of Bruce Arena and Hope Solo, almost everybody makes nice in high level U.S. soccer circles.

To sum up: Klinsmann suggested this week that “being all you can be” and earning a living in MLS may be mutually exclusive. Ouch! That’s going to leave a mark. The harsh spotlight fell specifically on Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, whose prodigal returns from lands afar back into Major League Soccer have damaged their levels of performance, according to the national team boss.

Garber returned serve by calling a news conference Wednesday — you know it’s serious when news conferences are called just to, you know, say things. He defended his league and publicly rebuked Klinsmann for comments that, in the commissioner’s view, were not only “detrimental [to MLS], I think they are wrong.”

MORE: Don Garber wants you to know: He’s pissed at Jurgen Klinsmann

Well, Klinsmann isn’t completely wrong. Although his comments were clumsy and lacking a broader perspective (not to mention they were fairly impolitic), he’s not completely off-base. He’s just being somewhat myopic — tightly focused on his creating the best U.S. national team possible. But that’s his job, after all. (Although his corresponding position as technical director is about creating the optimum national team scene, not just the best side for the here and now.)

He consistently encourages players to push themselves, to drive themselves in every way. Through diet, fitness regimen, a variety of coaching experiences, and in doggedly seeking competitive environment, Klinsmann is all about challenges. He doesn’t do comfort zones.

Yes, fighting for spots in Serie A, the Premier League, or any of the money leagues of Europe represents next level performance for players who might otherwise settle more comfortably into MLS. The quality of those leagues is simply better, the competition for spots more fierce. The day-to-day pressure squeezes ever more from the athletes. There’s no arguing that point.

But those who turn this into the next debate about “where is MLS relative to other leagues” will miss the bigger point. Nor should this devolve into the next (seriously tiring) call to “pay more in MLS.” Salary caps and league economics are a completely different discussion.

The national team’s interests aren’t always going to align with Major League Soccer’s. That’s always been that case, except leaders here have generally recognized compromise as mutually beneficial. The flashing red target of “soccer growth” provided enough incentive for those two major bodies to peddle in unison. What’s happening now is just the old club vs. country debate, reframed perhaps. The push and pull long seen around the globe is just washing ashore now.

You think the leaders of England’s FA and the leaders of that land’s Premier League always see eye to eye? They don’t.

So Klinsmann, German pragmatism and candor in charge, isn’t exactly wrong. He just needed more measurement and context in his recent words — more balancing. Major League Soccer’s commissioner was the right person to provide it.

Meanwhile, Klinsmann’s job is to create the best national team possible, and higher achievers will create a more capable World Cup threat. Some of that is pretty simple math, so he’s correct to push players individually to create best versions of themselves. But here the math becomes slightly complicated, more calculus than entry-level algebra: A better MLS is essential to a better national team, and higher quality players in the league (read: Dempsey, Bradley, and, yes, Landon Donovan) will invariably forge a better MLS.

Garber’s league is not about creating a better national team. That’s Klinsmann’s job. Garber’s job is to support and nurture Major League Soccer’s impressive growth curve. About 12 years ago this thing was very nearly reduced to a Wiki historical footnote. Anybody remember Heroes or Veronica Mars? Good shows! They got cancelled. It happens. Most fans don’t understand just how close MLS was in 2002 to being that cancelled TV show.

Now look at it: boffo stadiums, impressive TV contracts, and rich men tripping over each other to buy in. MLS has become that delightful new girl that everyone wants to sit with at lunch.

That’s where Garber is 100 percent correct. A robust MLS is essential as a base for the national team, and players like Bradley and Dempsey improve the league. We can argue reasonably that Bradley and Dempsey being part of MLS makes the national team’s future brighter, even if it doesn’t improve Klinsmann’s current squad.

MORE: Klinsmann’s right: Bradley has regressed since his return

Klinsmann’s past comments on MLS have too often ignored too many realities of the world, and here we see it again.

His recent messages pre-suppose that these players’ entire lives are about pushing for national team spots. That’s certainly a huge carrot on a stick for any professional, but it’s not everything. National team pursuits are factors in career choices, along with club ambitions, lives, families, and a host of other factors.

There are a lot of moving parts, and Klinsmann should know that. He risks damaging relationships with important players when he fails to acknowledge so publicly.

Is Michael Bradley only 90 or 95 percent of his optimum soccer self by returning to MLS? Perhaps. But we are talking percentages here. And besides, that’s his choice. He’s absolutely earned the right to make it.

And in fairness, Klinsmann has repeatedly recognized everything that MLS has accomplished, constantly bragging about that aforementioned, wildly successful growth curve. He just needed to do a little more of that bragging the other day in Florida — and take a bigger picture view.

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