Jurgen Klinsmann wants promotion and relegation, but will it happen?
Jurgen Klinsman was at it again recently. No, not winning high-profile road games, although he did that too with notable victories vs. the Netherlands and world champions Germany.
That said, let's leave Bobby Wood & Co. in Europe for a moment and bring the focus back home, where the promotion and relegation debate has been rekindled after the U.S. national team coach discussed the virtues of the system.
"That furthers our national team," Klinsman told the Rheinische Post. "Something is at stake week in, week out. Be it at the top or at the bottom, you always have to perform. This thrill of the relegation battle is non-existent in the U.S. league."
For his part, Klinsmann is always happy to play the ingenuous "I'm just answering a question" role, but there's no doubting he is passionate about the subject.
Klinsmann may have made statements in the past, such as "I'm a deep believer in the promotion-relegation system," but he's also a deep believer in removing structural impediments to his U.S. soccer vision. And directly in his line of sight is the monolith of MLS and its power bloc of owners and commissioner. It is a reality Klinsmann can work with but, in its current form, is under no obligation to like.
"The risk for club investors to all of a sudden play in the second league would be too high," he said in the same interview. "But the sporting side would benefit from it."
And there's the rub for Klinsmann's stance. The state of MLS investment has transformed in recent years, with a host of new and ambitious owners willing to invest in infrastructure and players and, of course, brand new franchises. But the "franchise" word is key here, as is its cost.
The rising price of franchises in this rapid expansion era is justified by MLS as not only reflecting their current value, but in compensating existing owners for their diluted share in the single-entity league. MLS was not founded on sporting competitiveness determining value, but on sporting competitiveness being defined by the stability of the structure that encompasses it.
Garber vs. Klinsmann
The spikes in the promotion/relegation discussion tend to be linked to the rise and fall in fortune and reputation of individuals with a strong vested interest in preserving or altering the status quo.
Klinsmann, for example, has seen his popular stock go from being close to "lame duck" after an underwhelming post-World Cup period to "visionary" following the aforementioned recent wins.
When Garber spoke out against Klinsmann in the fall, the U.S. head coach was in a vulnerable position. The pre-World Cup axing of Landon Donovan eroded some of Klinsmann's popular mandate and so when he expressed concern about Michael Bradley's move to Toronto during the build up to Donovan's final international appearance, Garber picked his moment to push back.
Meanwhile, in the middle is U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, the long-suffering dad to two squabbling siblings who has been trying to convince both Garber and Klinsmann that he loves them both but in different ways.
The political dynamics are always shifting. Indeed, Klinsmann's comments -- "Something is at stake week in, week out. Be it at the top or at the bottom, you always have to perform" -- could even apply to his job. In the U.S., his reputation still holds enough sway for him to largely operate without the type of institutional pushback he experienced in Germany at both club and country level.
In looking at the bigger picture, Klinsmann inherited a national landscape without a coherent developmental path for youth. Advocates for the work of, for example, his predecessor Bob Bradley will dispute this, but Bradley was not given the extensive developmental mandate Klinsmann has as U.S. Soccer's technical director.
The college system arguably defaults to producing college teams rather than footballers ready for the professional game and too many talented individuals fall through the cracks. Klinsmann's ideal pyramid features consistent playing systems, coherent academy structures and personnel always feeding up to the next level.
The top league and federation would swap data on fitness and performance and players would be kept constantly on their toes because of the trapdoor beneath them.
That's the idea, anyway.
The complicated current structure
It's easy to have sympathy with Klinsmann's point of view.
The current MLS system does not materially come close to the "playing for our lives" intensity Klinsmann seeks. That six teams in each conference of 10 will make the playoffs this year makes the regular-season campaign a strange exercise at times, more akin to an arcane cycling format that never breaks into a climactic sprint.
MLS's current structure also makes it hard to see the centralized incentive for best practice over time. Clubs may thrive or struggle and, yes, win trophies as a result of their efforts, but without relegation the standard is set by the bottom teams and not the top ones.
There was something distasteful about D.C. United two years ago and Montreal Impact last season effectively writing off the second half of poor campaigns knowing the consequences would be minimal, in pursuit of a well-funded rebuild the following season (D.C.) or a CONCACAF Champions League tilt (Montreal).
The teams or their coaches cannot be blamed. These were reasonable options at the time and, in D.C.'s case especially, it allowed young players to be blooded who have since become stalwarts of the current side.
In fact, there's maybe an argument that Perry Kitchen, a potential future national team fixture, would not have developed the way he has if the struggling 2013 D.C. team had had to write off the Open Cup it eventually won, in order to concentrate on a desperate scramble to stay in the top league. Whether you think that's right or not, there's at least some young player development opportunity for those who use the current system smartly.
The jury is still out, though, on how well the current system is running itself. MLS can legitimately point to its partnership with USL, which now features MLS reserve teams, as a development that is set to give individual players competitive experience and grow the technical base of the domestic game, but the collective risk/reward for teams is still not there.
The argument that USL is an independent league, to which MLS just happens to send players and teams, is patently absurd. With eight reserve sides participating, there is a dilution of competition. What it all means for the existing U.S. soccer hierarchy is still unfolding.
What does seem more certain is that it's a development that appears to have outflanked the North American Soccer League, which has been bullishly independent in the face of the MLS-USL pincer movement, having originally rejected the MLS's overtures about hosting reserve teams.
With the NASL currently defined as the only division-two league in North America, the news earlier this year that the USL was planning to seek division-two status heightened the stakes for some already difficult conversations about what these divisional statuses actually mean without promotion and relegation.
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The NASL could try to forge ahead with its own application for division-one status, though it's worthwhile unpacking what that would actually take, let alone actually mean, under the current set up.
Elsewhere in the world these divisional statuses refer to tiers of the footballing pyramid within a country and feature defined competitive mechanisms for movement between them. In the U.S., they cover infrastructural elements such as stadium facilities and geographical spread.
These things do matter. The NASL has a structural impediment to raising its status due to not yet finding a viable operation in the Pacific time zone, where both MLS and USL have already reserved several parking spots. Moreover, the rise of Club Tijuana has affected the potential audience in San Diego, meaning the list of financially viable contenders gets shorter and shorter.
Couple that with the MLS encroachment into NASL markets -- though the NASL recently pushed back with Paolo Maldini's Miami team -- and the whole scene looks very Game of Thrones: a constant struggle for position with no such thing as a guaranteed promotion.
That's the landscape in which Klinsmann operates and it's the developmental part of his job with U.S. Soccer to see past internecine bickering and find viable ways forward.
In truth, beating the Netherlands and Germany might have been easier.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.