What the captain’s armband says about Jurgen Klinsmann’s control of the U.S. men’s national team

Call it sour grapes, or a gratuitous shot at his nemesis Jurgen Klinsmann – or perhaps, the unvarnished view of a person with nothing left to lose — but when Landon Donovan shared his fears about the near future of the U.S. national team in a reflective, deeply personal interview, it got us thinking.

From USA Today:

“I feel at peace with the national team as it pertains to me. I worry about the future of it. I’m hopeful that things will turn out well, but I do worry sometimes that the future doesn’t look as bright as it could. Long term, we are doing the right things to build soccer in this country, but the intermediate future is a little less bright.

“We’ve made so much progress and I don’t want to see us regress. We need to continue to find and develop good leaders. That has always been the key since I came into the national team. The successful teams always had good leaders, and I think there is a little bit of that missing now, and I worry about that going forward.”

What’s Donovan getting at here? Are these the words of a man still hurt by his exclusion from the United States’ World Cup roster after a long career of dedicated service? Or is he actually pointing out something meaningful, something that should not be drowned out by the inevitable din of that “Jurgen versus Landon” that splits the U.S. soccer into warring factions every time it creeps into the news cycle?

Honduras v USA - International Friendly

Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Imageses

Coincidentally, Donovan’s remarks were soon followed by the announcement that Jozy Altidore would the captain’s armband on Friday afternoon against Colombia. At 25 years old, Altidore is a youngish stand-in for incumbent skipper Clint Dempsey, who was left at home in Seattle to rest at the tail end of an exhausting year. Veterans Michael Bradley or Tim Howard would normally step in, but both are presently out, due to injury and international sabbatical, respectively.

Altidore now has 75 international appearances to his name but is actually the second-most experienced player in the current camp, behind the grizzled master DaMarcus Beasley, who captained the U.S. at the 2013 Gold Cup. In this case, though, Klinsmann seems to have decided that the honor and responsibility signified by that three-inch-wide strip of elastic and velcro would be a more useful carrot for Altidore, a player struggling for both playing time and goals at Sunderland.

Does the captaincy mean anything? That’s a question that our friends across the pond in England routinely twist themselves into tight, messy knots over thanks to their historical fetishization of the armband. Other nations see it as little more than a ceremonial job for the coin toss, simply handing it to whichever member of the starting 11 has the most career caps.

But in this case, Klinsmann’s choice of skippers is a decent entree into his wider philosophies about leadership. Klinsmann raised eyebrows when he selected Dempsey for the role in March 2013, filling the gap left when he dropped Carlos Bocanegra, the inspirational but aging defender who’d skippered the Yanks for six years. “Boca” was the latest in a line of strong U.S. leaders that includes Claudio Reyna, John Harkes, Tom Dooley and Tony Meola. But Klinsmann has taken things in a different direction.

The choice of Dempsey, a hugely respected yet inherently soft-spoken character, was a mild surprise. After all, Howard was a rock-solid cornerstone of the team and a vocal presence in goal, and Michael Bradley had become the squad’s heartbeat with his influential midfield orchestration and “caged fury” persona.

Honduras v USA - International Friendly

Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Imageses

But the boss went with the enigma instead. Dempsey was – and still is – one of the most unique players the U.S. has ever created, with an often intoxicating blend of drive and skill. And in retrospect, we can see why Klinsmann – who’s since become American soccer’s antagonist-in-chief – would want to celebrate the personality traits that led Dempsey to chafe at the limitations of his former club, Fulham, and stubbornly engineer a move to someplace with realistic UEFA Champions League hopes.

(Would Klinsmann have made the same choice if he’d known Dempsey would accept a lucrative offer to return home to MLS just a few months later? We’ll never know, but I doubt it.)

Notably, “Deuce” also wasn’t the type to share the spotlight with Klinsmann himself. Dempsey is a private person who often puts up a bland public face to simplify his dealings with the media, which also aptly describes Altidore, a complex character who has not always had the best interactions with the Fourth Estate and handles himself accordingly. This allows Klinsmann to take a stronger grip on the narratives that surround his team.

Remember, just one day before Dempsey was handed the armband, Sporting News published Brian Straus’s landmark article which detailed confusion and uncertainty behind the scenes under Klinsmann. The coach and his staff were left fuming, and clearly vowed to never again allow such a window be opened into their program’s inner workings.

Stringent message discipline was imposed at subsequent U.S. national team gatherings. Leading national beat writers were gathered for a “workshop” in Washington, D.C., the following month, where they were offered unprecedented access to Klinsmann – on background – but also asked about how their outlet would have handled a story like Straus’s. And reporters’ access to players was steadily curtailed, culminating at the World Cup, where one veteran starter refused to speak to the media at all until the final week of the campaign in Brazil.

Much like José Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, Klinsmann would prefer the cameras and microphones to be trained on him rather than his players. In one sense this relocates pressure and stress from their shoulders to his, an admirable trait. But in another, it provides him with the control that he – like all coaches – craves.

The charismatic German-American coach sees himself as not just a trainer and lineup selector, but a change agent for the entire American soccer system. When he signed his lucrative contract extension last December, the newly-created job title of technical director was added to his office door in reflection of this. And as long as those wider meta-issues are on his plate alongside the more coaching mundane tasks, he’s not going to let any of his players – past, present or future – disrupt his messaging.