Goosing the status quo has been a hallmark of Jurgen Klinsmann’s three-and-a-half years in charge of the United States’ national team.
Check that; it has been more than “hallmark.” Nudging domestic soccer from its comfort zone has been the central component of Klinsmann’s reign, the prevailing spirit that has guided his comprehensive efforts since U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati finally relented in 2011, handing this unique figure the power he sought during their years of courtship.
More and more we’ve all come to understand that Klinsmann isn’t just trying to improve his players, although that does remain the ultimate end game. Rather, what he’s attempting is a bigger, more ambitious and more complex task. He’s attempting to enhance the talent pool by goosing progress in everything that happens around them, by altering the very landscape, enhancing the soccer air they breathe.
If Klinsmann had his way, youth soccer would look different, the country’s professional soccer calendar would be in for radical makeover, the media would bare its teeth more often, fans would be better educated (in his opinion) about what successful national team programs look like in lands beyond. And, for sure, the bakers of the world would stop selling bread to local players who lost on the previous weekend!
(The “disappointed baker” is a frequently used gizmo in Klinsmann’s tool belt of examples, that under-performing slackers in other lands face daily, community consequences, and that the drip effect of unrelenting pressure eventually creates a sharper, more determined athlete. I mean, no one prefers stale bread, or wants his local barista to pour an intentionally bitter cup or wants his shirts done uncomfortably stiff at the local laundry, etc.)
Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images.
Yes, if Klinsmann had his way, the currents and streams that steadily shape the domestic soccer tributaries would be formed differently – more like what we see in other lands. But therein lies the issue: this ain’t “other lands.” This is the United States, a land built by independently going our own way. Our very essence is a melting pot where we cherry-pick and borrow from other cultures, but then add, subtract and layer in other twists to form something uniquely ours.
It was ever thus with our soccer.
Hard to say if this is a battle of wills with Klinsmann or just the best example of his unbending optimism, a tribal elder’s earnest intention to move the mountain. Either way, it’s fair to wonder if, in Klinsmann’s ambitious aim, the man has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Might the coach who is being paid millions annually for his well-intentioned efforts have to accept that it’s too late to completely rework the soil on which U.S. Soccer is planted?
It is certainly anathema for him to hear it, but Klinsmann may just have to accept some compromise, or tweak his strategy, in this ongoing quest to beat the status quo out of us. Some of the man’s hard-wired German pragmatism may have to kick in, and he may just have to accept that some things aren’t changing, that improvement has to happen within the existing framework, at least to some extent.
In some ways, things aren’t even staying put, but rather moving the opposite way Klinsmann would like. Take, for example, Major League Soccer, perhaps the best example of where the U.S. manager may have to deal in a “world that is” rather than in a world he would prefer.
In Klinsmann’s perfect domestic soccer snow globe, more U.S. talent is finding its way overseas, where the daily competition for spots is more rigorous, where the media criticism is more ingrained, and where the bakers might suddenly be “all out of bread” at very inopportune times.
But Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Mix Diskerud and others have all come in from the European cold, so to speak, having joined an MLS where salaries at the top end are delightfully surpassing those available in Europe. The result isn’t just a potential drag on player improvement (in Klinsmann’s estimation), but they may just force the U.S. manager to adjust central elements of his program.
Take the just-concluded January camp. Klinsmann was put off that some veteran players showed up less than fully fit. Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler apparently was not one of them, although his comments afterward perhaps made it sound that way. Besler has always been a good soldier; from what I can gather, he dutifully reported for the U.S. January camp in fine shape.
Still, his remarks were instructional, confessing that MLS players needed to be mindful of their domestic season. His goal, he said, was peak fitness on March 1.
This is an accurate reflection of how most professional athletes think (these are my words, by the way, not his): that a long, demanding season is ahead, and that he has some obligation, at least, to base his heavy load/recovery cycles on the calendar of his club, and one that pays him handsomely. As a good teammate and leader of the Sporting Kansas City organization, isn’t that the right thing to do?
(And, please, spare me the small thinking that says, “I don’t care about MLS … so, ‘no,’ these players are wrong not to prioritize our national team!” Any fan certainly has the right to ignore and dismiss MLS – but that is never an option for a conscientious professional.)
So Klinsmann risks putting his players in a tough spot when he asks them to be in peak condition in January.
Now look at the national team’s 2015 schedule, with friendlies the coming weeks at Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. It certainly made sense in previous years to schedule friendlies overseas, where travel for the European-based talent was less taxing. But now if we look at the top 40 or so players in the U.S. pool, about two-thirds are in MLS. Arguably, four the country’s five “automatic starters,” Jermaine Jones, Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore, are MLS men now.
Compare that to the 2010 World Cup, where just four members of Bob Bradley’s entire 23-man roster came from MLS. What’s going to happen when the U.S. coach wants to take 10-12 leading MLS men to Europe for friendlies, smack in the middle of their MLS seasons?
The larger compromise ahead is this: Klinsmann may just have to understand that for today’s athletes, playing for their country certainly means a lot – but it’s not everything. National team matters absolutely weigh into their short-term and long-term career choices, but their club choices deserve career attentiveness, too. Consider that Dempsey may play 10-12 international matches this year. But he may approach 40 matches across all competition for the Sounders, who are paying him nearly $7 million to be “the man” around CenturyLink Field.
Klinsmann has two directives from U.S. Soccer, and they are sometimes at odds. As technical director, his job is to improve the talent pool at the macro level. That’s where all this “goosing” and eviscerating the status quo comes in. His opinions may not always be right, but he’s been given the mandate, and he’d be remiss not to try everything possible to move things along.
But his other job is “coach.” That means looking at the pool of players in the moment and forming the best bunch from it, not wasting time wishing the ways and means of arrival looked different.
Klinsmann is a thinking man, so we know he’s always evaluating everything. At some point, he may have to tilt the balance of his job. He may have to be a little more “coach” and just a little less “technical director.” That might mean some painful acquiescence. It might mean re-calculating this admittedly complex formula and accepting a little more of how things are.