It was obvious at the time that MLS commissioner Don Garber's tirade against Jürgen Klinsmann last month was about much more than the innocuous statements they were ostensibly in response to. Sure enough, ESPN FC is reporting that MLS bigwigs remain "irate" at Klinsmann—this time for what they see as his pushiness in advising young players to go overseas:
Seattle Sounders minority owner Adrian Hanauer, Philadelphia Union CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz and several other sources, have told ESPN FC that there is growing frustration within the league over the advice Klinsmann and U.S. soccer staff are giving to youth national team and MLS academy players.
At issue, according to sources, is an approach whereby Klinsmann and his surrogates are advising those players to sign with European clubs and bypass MLS. To this end, the U.S. Soccer Federation has been organizing training stints and trials for various youth national team players, the better to showcase those players for overseas clubs.
The problem, then, is that young players who have yet to sign a professional contract with their MLS team can jump ship to Europe without the MLS team receiving any compensation.
Both sides have pretty clear and in some ways defensible positions here. MLS teams want to see a return on investment from their youth academies, and training up teens only for them to snub your contract offer and go sign for some German club for free would be legitimately frustrating.
As Klinsmann and head of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati are quoted saying in the report, though, this genuinely isn't their problem. Their goal is to make sure players in this country get the nurturing they need to develop into quality USMNT players. Whether those ends are best served by sticking around the States or heading off to Europe is an individual question for each player to decide after receiving all the information and guidance available to them from people who would know, i.e. Klinsmann and his staff.
This makes it a little curious that MLS poobahs are not only so upset about an issue every club in the world has to face, but so insistent on blaming Klinsmann specifically for it. Here's more from the report, which characterizes "several MLS owners" as being "irate" with the manager:
"We are investing millions of dollars in youth development," said Hanauer. "It's hard enough to compete with foreign teams who are trying to poach players in the U.S. and Canada. I'm certainly not happy if our federation and its representatives are in any way pushing our players to sign with a foreign club and bypassing our professional environment."
"At some point, if [this continues], clearly I — and I assume my MLS partners — would need to reconsider our investment in youth development, which I don't think is ultimately good for U.S. soccer," he said.
Philadelphia Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz joined in on the Klinsmann complain train, expressing shock—shock!—that Klinsmann would have the audacity to inform his players about their European options, especially without first visiting his club's fine youth training grounds and seeing the good work they're doing there.
The entitlement of these guys is, if nothing else, impressive. How they can muster so much righteous indignation that the world doesn't revolve around them and that people with different motivations and job descriptions won't kowtow to their preferences just because they say so is beyond us.
What isn't beyond us is the subtext underlying this little fight and the one that came before it. MLS brass must think Klinsmann is actively against their league and is seeking to undercut it whenever he can. It's why the officials referenced in the report continue alleging Jürgen is actively pushing guys to leave, even when one of them admits that the kids he's talked to say that all Klinsmann does is give them information and advice without pressing them in one direction or the other.
And while their concerns about putting millions of dollars into youth development only to see their brightest prospects run off for free are legitimate, they aren't addressing the real issue there: amateurism. If they could sign more players to professional contracts at 16, as is the standard in Europe, they would have more control over where their players go and be compensated when it happens. But because few kids are such surefire long-term pros that they'd be willing to give up a possible college soccer career, it's harder to convince them to sign at those ages. Fix that and the problem is greatly minimized.
All of these MLS vs. Klinsmann fights stem from the same fundamental problem: MLS's insistence on conflating itself with the sport of soccer in America. What is good for one may not be good for the other, and no matter how much whining MLS officials do, they aren't going to convince Jürgen that they are his boss.
Klinsmann was brought to shake things up, to do things differently so that American soccer can compete with Spanish soccer and Italian soccer and Uruguayan soccer. Part of that job necessarily entails doing things that will bother MLS's panjandrums from time to time. U.S. soccer fans should be happy these guys don't like Klinsmann. The more he bothers them, the better he's doing.