Jurgen Klinsmann was an arrogant jerk with a penchant for demoralizing his players and pissing off powerful executives in the American soccer scene with his lofty ideas about how to shake up American soccer as it has been—a culture that consistently puts out a motley crew of under-talented overachievers who might have a big moment or two in a World Cup group stage match but otherwise never do anything of note in the larger picture of the sport—and turn it into something better. Those facts, coupled with his well-known shortcomings as an actual manager, are the main reason why he got fired.
In his place, U.S. Soccer went for a familiar face, one more sympathetic to the charted trajectory of soccer in America that had been carefully planned over the years through things like the patient growth of MLS, a manager that might be less demanding than Klinsmann but in the process could create a positive, relaxed atmosphere that got the best out of the talent on hand. Oh, and also someone who was actually good at the whole coaching thing. As the team demonstrated in their beat-down of Honduras last Friday, Bruce Arena has proven himself to be the perfect coach to achieve those on-pitch goals. Now, he’s making his anti-Klinsmann bones in the media as well.
Arena’s “There’s A New Sheriff In Town” act started in earnest last week, when he praised USMNT icon Landon Donovan (whom Klinsmann memorably left off the 2014 World Cup squad) and said American wonderteen Christian Pulisic should aspire to Donovan’s achievements, despite the fact that the 18-year-old would have to wildly underachieve to merely match Donovan’s success.
Most recently, he proverbially spit on Klinsmann’s primary hobbyhorse—the inverting of the American player development system—by claiming that actually, the system is fine as it is because it, and not Germany, created Pulisic. Here are his comments from yesterday, ahead of tonight’s USMNT World Cup qualifier against Panama, per ESPN:
“[Pulisic] was grown as a player here in the U.S.,” Arena said during a roundtable with reporters. “Don’t piss on our system, which everyone wants to do. ‘It’s not possible that we could have a good player that came out of here. There has to be a reason for it.’ And the reason is obviously because he went to Germany.
“He was going to be a good player wherever he went. Maybe that was exactly the perfect environment for him, you could argue that. I don’t doubt that. But when he left here he was a good player. They didn’t [invent him]. He was a pretty good player when he left here.”
The reference to “everyone” wanting to “piss on our system” can only be read as a not-so-subtle jab at Klinsmann, who was a vocal critic of U.S. youth soccer’s pay-to-play system, among other aspects. Klinsmann’s adamant exhortations that the national team’s players needed to test themselves in the big leagues of Europe was founded on a criticism of American soccer: It was only by leaving America for Europe, Klinsmann was saying in so many words, that a soccer player could really learn if they were any good.
(We also have Arena teasingly explaining that making the team look so good didn’t involve any “secret formulas,” that the players are self-motivated and just needed to be treated “like responsible professionals” in order to get back to winning ways. He also joked that his brilliant decision to select left back Jorge Villafaña as the team’s left back was based on his personal credo that left backs should be the ones playing the position of left back. These are more gibes of varying directness at Klinsmann’s tenure—but the youth development one is the most illustrative.)
In the most narrow sense, Arena is not wrong on the facts. Pulisic did grow up playing mainly in the U.S. player-development programs, both at a local club that competed in the country’s primary youth-development league system and with the national team’s various youngster programs like the Bradenton Academy. But Arena’s logical leap that Pulisic’s success is reason enough not to criticize the youth system is a leap too far.
One player good enough to go to Europe and emerge there as a potential world-class player does not a successful system make. He did not succeed specifically due to the U.S. player-development system, proof of which is that his success is such a huge deal in the first place. If Pulisic was one of a handful of high-end talents that were formed in America and polished in Europe and now pushing for playing time in the world’s biggest leagues, then we could attribute the U.S. system with some of this success. If anything, that only a single one of the millions and millions of American kids who grow up playing soccer has shown the ability to actually become something truly great is itself a knock against the status quo.
Worth remembering, too, is Pulisic’s specific path. He spent a year in England as a youngster playing for a club over there, actually trained a little bit at Barcelona’s academy, and is the son of a soccer coach who also was once a pretty good player. On top of that, he left for Europe when he was 16. He was very good and promising then, yes, but it took going to Germany for Pulisic to really start making good on his potential. Donovan himself—no great critic of America’s soccer system—spoke on the beneficial aspects of Pulisic’s choice to hop the pond and compete at the highest level: “But the difference [between Pulisic and me] is that mentally he’s been exposed to things that I hadn’t been exposed to yet at that age and it has clearly helped him.”
Borussia Dortmund didn’t invent Christian Pulisic. Neither did U.S. Soccer. Pulisic is at this point a sui generis phenomenon. No person or institution deserves credit for his growth more than his family and he himself does. And until the U.S. player-development system has a hand in churning out more than one world-class player, or even more than a handful capable of getting regular minutes for teams in Europe’s top leagues, the U.S. national team coach and U.S. soccer should continue to evaluate its process critically.
As we’ve written before, Klinsmann was not a great manager for the USMNT—he spoke in vague platitudes and often coached by putting down his players, where Arena is more concrete and supportive—but his ideas for improving soccer in the U.S. were, and are, valuable. Sitting content with how things are without critique—a strategy Arena seems to be embracing whole-heartedly—doesn’t help anybody.