Jurgen Klinsmann: America's Newest Soccer Jesus

Jurgen Klinsmann was introduced to the media this week as the new coach of the U.S. men's soccer team, a development in the making ever since the U.S. Soccer Federation batted eyelashes at Klinsmann before the 2006 World Cup. The coach spurned the USSF then, and instead led Germany to a third-place finish in the tournament. In 2010, he again said no, filling USSF president Sunil Gulati with a terrible, acquisitive lust. But last week Gulati got his man. Klinsmann is ours now. All ours. A pretty bauble that inspires hope and cheer — he might even be able to teach our players to dive! — but obscures what really ails American soccer.

We do like to invest in talismans hereabouts. Klinsmann, a jocular transplant to California (who recently shed the umlaut in his first name), radiates optimism to match his luminous résumé as a player. He was a speedy and clinical finisher on the ground or in the air, a limber striker who could snake his way into seemingly impossible scoring positions. He won a 1990 World Cup with West Germany and a 1996 European Championship. Only two men have netted more goals for Germany. Surely, this must be our savior. But, then, we're always able to find a rosy glow when it comes to soccer. The sport's history here is a parade of messiah figures. Freddy Adu was supposed to be Pelé. John O'Brien was supposed to be Zidane. Jozy Altidore was supposed to be the player Eddie Johnson was supposed to be. Eddie Johnson was supposed to be good.

This extends beyond the field; deliverance can come on the dry-erase board of a genius just as surely as it can arrive on his toe. The original dreamcatcher, in fact, was a coach, Bora Milutinovic, who two decades ago unwittingly ushered in the modern era of the American game — one in which international soccer is taken seriously but one, too, in which the notion prevails that success in a team game is attributable to the talents of a lone great man. (True, only an own goal in the 1994 World Cup by a Colombian defender, who was later murdered over his misstep, preserved Milutinovic's reputation as a miracle worker and kept people from focusing on the subpar record he had amassed.) More recently, there was Bruce Arena, a coach widely viewed — even today — as the closest thing to the second coming (despite the fact that he could barely be troubled to bring Clint Dempsey off the bench in the 2006 World Cup).

At one time or another, all of these men were supposed to save us from our native mediocrity. Yet here we are, unredeemed as ever, lumbering along as a second-rate power, still awaiting the virtuoso who will change everything and thus misdiagnosing the problem in the first place.

There's a tendency in all sports to attribute the rise of any sport to an individual. Think of the NBA, whose explosion in the 1980s is invariably credited to a solitary figure's magnificence — David Stern or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson — rather than to the various dry structural explanations (a couple of landmark collective bargaining agreements, TV deals, the rise of cable, etc.). American soccer doesn't need Joseph Campbell monomyth right now; it needs systemic reform. For decades, a pay-to-play landscape here ensured that too many kids got priced out of the sport. A piecemeal developmental system ensured that others got overlooked. Youth players suited up for select teams, district teams, regional teams. They spent most of their time playing games in structured settings, not developing skills in training or learning to improvise during pick-up competition. The Olympic Developmental Program has been a consistently crappy way to nurture talent. The college system has been equally muddled. In many ways, this is still going on.

For these reasons and others, American soccer has struggled to produce elite field players. We're way behind Europe, South America and — horror! — Mexico. Seemingly overnight, our neighbor to the south has whelped a new generation of talent that will terrorize CONCACAF for years to come. Meanwhile, the most remarkable group of American players in history, many of whom came out of a top-down USSF residency program, is on the decline with obvious replacements slow to emerge. No amount of tactical or inspirational genius from a coach, even one with Klinsmann's background, can instantly alter this dynamic.

But there is still some reason for hope. The USSF and MLS have taken significant recent steps to cultivate grassroots talent more effectively. In 2005, Gulati set up a task force to study how other countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Holland, and France approach player development. Each country had its own obstacles. Each dealt with them in different ways. It's a subject ESPN soccer writer Jeff Carlisle explored in 2009 in an excellent series:

[T]he French model involves elite players, from the U-10 age group on up, traveling to one of nine regional centers to train during the week, with the best players going to the national training center in Clarefontaine. The players then return to their clubs to play games on the weekend.

While this sounds good in practice, in a country the size of the U.S. such an approach would be impractical. The cost of duplicating the U-17 residency program eight times (or more) all over the country would be prohibitive.

In South American countries like Brazil and Argentina, the responsibility for player development is placed even more on professional clubs. Players become affiliated with these organizations starting at around age 10. After several years in this environment, and after the player ranks have been culled numerous times, the best are identified to form the basis of their youth national teams.

While this decentralized approach is in large part what was eventually adopted by the USSF with its Development Academy, it's by no means a carbon copy. In Brazil and Argentina, some players emerge from crushing poverty, meaning issues like a player's nutrition and their education ultimately become the responsibility of the club. Those factors aren't issues in this country.

After the task force, the USSF in 2007 started a development academy that casts a much wider net than the residency program from which Donovan sprung. The federation today works closely with MLS teams, which now have networks of scouts searching for prospects. MLS, in particular, has extended the talent pipeline. Many MLS teams now have training academies to bring the best youth players into junior professional systems that mimic those in South America and Europe. Training programs like these increase the ratio of practice to matchplay, which creates more skillful and well-rounded players.

To take one example, the New York Red Bulls Academy produced Juan Agudelo, a young striker who broke into the full national team last year when he was only 17. The Red Bulls cover all expenses for players at their academy. This is a vast improvement over the soccer landscape in America 15 or even 10 years ago, but we're talking about, at bottom, deeply embedded cultural attitudes toward issues like amateurism and youth sports and where on the developmental ladder to introduce the profit motive. It takes time for any changes to take place and even more time for them to yield any results.

Enter German Jesus. It's funny to think that Klinsmann, who is deeply plugged into the youth soccer scene here, twice rejected the USSF because the organization wouldn't grant him enough control over player development, which is precisely what someone needed to control a little better. Gulati has dismissed the issue of control as a "red herring," but given how much time Klinsmann has spent in the past few days talking about the importance of youth development, you have to think that Gulati has given him free(r) rein. And why not? For all his surface charm, Klinsmann sounds like a man who's studied the systemic issues. Here he is discussing the sociological implications of American soccer with SI's Grant Wahl:

The U.S. is known worldwide as a melting pot. ...Soccer in a certain way transmits the culture of a country ... You have the Latin influence [in the U.S.]. You have the cultural backbone of your university system, which is completely different from the rest of the world. You have the fact that it's mostly organized soccer, when we know that the best players in the world come out of unorganized events. I think it's a fascinating topic.

Equally fascinating will be to see how Klinsmann tries to "disorganize" or re-organize American soccer to make it work better, to forge a melting pot style unique to America, preferably in time for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, preferably without Jonathan Bornstein. One of the smart but obvious things Klinsmann said on the topic was this:

Oh, definitely [the style would be] influenced by the Latin Americans, I mean, because they are such a huge part of the population here. And they love the game. I mean they're all soccer freaks. And they will have an influence on that. I think that the appointment of Claudio Reyna as the technical director of youth development, this is the first signal — [saying] we want to dig into the Latin community and we want to get those kids ... And we don't want them to go back to their home countries. We want them to become real American players.

How incongruous. A savior who intends to try to do what we need him to do, not just what we dream he'll do. For now, Klinsmann is saying all the right things. His first order of business, however, will be to name a team for the Aug. 10 friendly against Mexico, a rematch of the traumatic June 25 Gold Cup final that precipitated Bradley's exit. It's a symbolic assignment but a fitting one, given the contrast between youth development in Mexico and the United States (a battle Mexico has, for the time being, won). If Klinsmann gets past El Tri, we'll congratulate him. If he achieves World Cup success, we'll praise him. If he molds an American style of play that strikes fear into the hearts of enemy teams, we'll canonize him. But let's not get our hopes up, eh? Ah, screw it. Let's.

Jürgen Klinsmann keen to harness Latin American spirit with US [The Guardian]
Klinsmann could redefine U.S. team's philosophy at all levels [Sports Illustrated]
USSF models youth development on a mix of foreign concepts [ESPN]