Jürgen Klinsmann has a plan. It may be a plan full of revolutionary ideas to change the course of U.S. soccer, and one filled to the brim with the German pragmatism that rubs us intrinsically optimistic Americans the wrong way, but the head coach of the USMNT has a plan nonetheless.
The question is: Who is going to buy in?
Coming off of a 3-2 road loss in a friendly against Chile at the Estadio El Teniente, Klinsmann criticized the overall fitness of his team as the Yanks appeared to run out of gas after the 60th minute.
Implicit in Klinsmann’s controversial remarks was the reiteration of his disapproval of his top players electing to continue their professional careers in the MLS as opposed to joining clubs in Europe. With the MLS opening day still weeks away, it’s easy to understand why many of the players who made the trek to Chile might not be in peak condition just yet.
However, that excuse falls precisely into Klinsmann’s argument: When it’s an option, why not play in the almost year-round schedule of Europe leagues to stay fit?
This question of fitness and commitment to maximizing one’s abilities probably played into Klinsmann’s decision to leave Landon Donovan off the roster for last year’s World Cup in Brazil. While I think the decision to leave the best player in the history of U.S. international soccer off the World Cup squad at a time when the team had a scarcity of experienced goal-scorers was difficult to swallow (and borderline poor judgment), I think Klinsmann deserves credit for sticking to his principles, as much as the armchair quarterback in me might want to object.
While many of the U.S. head coach’s decisions remain up in the air, his strategy of aggressively going after European-raised American citizens has indeed paid dividends. The U.S.’ run to the knockout stage in Brazil might not have been possible without the key contributions of Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, both dual German citizens. On top of that, young talents such as John Brooks, Julian Green and the Iceman, Aron Johansson, look to be the cornerstones of the team’s 2016 Copa America and 2018 World Cup campaigns. In addition, Klinsmann’s success in poaching young talent from powerhouses such as Germany should push the rest of the team.
We may not like or openly support all of Klinsmann’s decisions, but we don’t need to. When he stated last year that he did not expect the United States to win the World Cup, I think we were warranted in expressing displeasure.
Nevertheless, I think there’s tremendous value in Klinsmann’s bluntness; it puts situations into context. Moreover, as the historically futile soccer movement in this country might be gaining real traction, Klinsmann’s experience on the world stage, both as a World Cup-winning player and as the coach for host Germany in 2006, should serve this team well. As he often puts it, this project is not just about preparing to win a trophy — it’s about changing a culture and leading a movement.
As much as I enjoy watching the MLS and believe that the league is gaining serious momentum, it still does not equal the top leagues across the pond, such as the EPL or the Bundesliga. The fact that legendary players such as Thierry Henry and Kaka have a found a place in the MLS to extend their careers does little to dissuade the “retirement home” epithet commonly directed at the league.
Should the best American players look to take their talents overseas? I think so — this is an area where I trust Klinsmann 100 percent. When the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Maccabi Tel Aviv’s David Blatt to be their next head coach last summer, there was a serious outcry from many corners of the basketball community, openly questioning whether a successful international coach — but one with zero NBA coaching experience — could succeed in a far superior league.
In this analogy, the first and second tier European clubs are the NBA, and the MLS — at least for now — plays the role of the Euro basketball leagues. If the best American basketball players decided to play overseas in Italy or Turkey, we would criticize them for not challenging themselves at the highest level. The same applies for the state of professional soccer right now.
Thus, I think Klinsmann might be on to something by demanding the most out of his players. Rising to the upper echelons of international soccer is no easy task and there will definitely be more growing pains along the way, but there’s no better man to lead the way.
For more German nationalism, contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.