Jurgen Klinsmann And The Clash of Soccer Cultures
By Ty Duffy
Jurgen Klinsmann has provoked controversy, since becoming USMNT coach. Whether it's players questioning his methods, an ongoing kerfuffle with MLS, acknowledging the U.S. would not win the World Cup, an off-hand comment about Kobe, his tactics in Brazil, or the present sniping about player fitness, contention keeps simmering to the surface.
These troubles are not personality quirks. They are a natural outgrowth of Klinsmann's mandate. U.S. Soccer hired him not just to coach the team, but to overhaul the culture. He has tried to make the U.S. more efficient, more professional and more German. For Americans, that is a radical conceptual shift. It would be surprising if that went down with ease.
Germany is the right paradigm for the U.S to follow. They may be the best World Cup team of all time. They are the most consistent. The Germans have played in all 16 World Cups since 1954. They have won four times, have reached the final eight times, have made the semifinals 12 times and never have finished outside the quarterfinal eight.
The Germans have produced their fair share of great players. But, compared to Brazil, Argentina and other European powers, it has not been a disproportionate number. No German outfield player has finished Top 3 for the Ballon d'Or since 1996. The last German midfielder or forward to finish Top 3 was Klinsmann in 1995.
Success, for Germany, has come through its collective development system. They have strong coaching in tactics and technique from youth level onward. They have a culture of absolute, relentless professionalism. Organization. Competent passing. No distracting assholes (John Terry). No freelancing tactical nuisances (Steven Gerrard). Smarter. Better. In short, don't be England. The U.S. is more like England.
Americans, inside and outside sport, value the individual. We like stars. We view greatness through classic, infantile hero narratives. Even analytics are still about parsing out an individual's true value. The American soccer obsession has been finding the American Pele, Ronaldo or Messi, not creating an estimable soccer vocational program.
Pragmatism is for the feckless. Providence favors the courageous. When an American team overcomes, it must be through sheer pluck. We tried harder. We wanted it more. We believed that we will win. A moral triumph fit for a Ronald Reagan bedtime story.
Germans instill values. Americans have inherent values. A German coach critiques the system. American players and fans interpret it is a personal slight and get reductive. What's wrong with American players? Why do you hate MLS? Klinsmann was too American for German tastes at Bayern Munich. Now, he's too German for American tastes.
Klinsmann is one of Germany's greatest ever players. He doesn't see that as the result of him being a phenomenal athlete or a soccer genius. He views that greatness as a product of the obsessive, daily diligence he put in to make himself the best player possible.
That's why he didn't understand why his two best players, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, left top European leagues right before a World Cup to play against guys making school teacher salaries. That's why he had little time for Landon Donovan's rumspringa in Cambodia. That's why he can't comprehend players in the domestic league taking three months off every year and showing up to USMNT training out of shape.
Klinsmann does not see American soccer instilling that level of dedication. His long-term solution has been overhauling the youth setup. His intermediate-term solution is encouraging young players to go abroad. His stop-gap solution has been recruiting U.S.-eligible players reared in Germany.
In a land of dogmatic optimism, Klinsmann is a realist. For him, winning the World Cup was a matter of practical capability, not belief. Progressing in the World Cup was about progressing in the World Cup, however dire and defensive the tactics, not trying to out character the opponent. His true crime was not even paying lip service to the American spirit.
Is the Klinsmann relationship workable? Without question. As Mike Cardillo has noted on this site before, the USMNT is not a club team, however much people care about it like one. Klinsmann is not under fire and should not be. Friendly results are irrelevant. The USMNT has not played a meaningful match since the World Cup.
Debate the value of the Gold Cup and corresponding Confederations Cup berth if you wish. We still think it's little more than a bellwether against Mexico. CONCACAF qualifying is more difficult than credited. The 2016 Copa America will be an excellent showcase. But, Klinsmann's tenure is about Russia 2018 and how his development program fares beyond. Is the U.S. producing a steady stream of well prepared, international caliber players?
Klinsmann is not going anywhere, unless the U.S. gets in serious qualifying trouble. He will irritate the American soccer community at regular intervals. But, the point is U.S. soccer is trying to change. Change is never easy. Fans should have more faith in the process (again, the U.S. has not played a meaningful game since the World Cup). Klinsmann should recognize that a bit more positivity, however fatuous, goes a long way with an American audience.