Amid rising tension, Klinsmann's U.S. project reaches a critical point
The fallout from last month's very public exchange of words between MLS commissioner Don Garber and U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann exposed specific tensions within U.S. soccer. It also held up to the light a myth assumed to be underpinning the sport -- namely that everybody involved in soccer in this country is working in a mutual spirit to "grow the game" even if they disagree on the methods.
That idea isn't necessarily untrue in the broadest sense; it's just that an appeal to this collective spirit has historically been enough to at least mute dissent, if not stifle it entirely.
But in raising the specter of Major League Soccer's private interests and the competitive instincts of the U.S. national team coach potentially being in conflict with one another, Garber's comments inadvertently invited an assessment of the national scene. It's a scene that works not so much as a disparate but broadly mutually sympathetic system of leagues, colleges, high schools, academies, diasporas and pay-to-play clubs, but as something more "Balkan-ized" whereby each element is driven as much by self-interest as fervor for the common cause.
It would be naive to expect anything else, of course, but just such a degree of strategic naivety (if such a thing is possible) has helped drive the game over the past couple of decades as uneasy alliances have been formed to try and let a professional culture of the game take root. The national conversation was driven by a parallel cautious pragmatism.
MLS, with its innately conservative structure, has often been where the tone of that conversation has been set, even among those Americans who rarely consider the domestic league to be a key part of the conversation. In the first cycle of the Klinsmann era, the modest growth of MLS was able to bump along in tandem with the competitive aims of the national team coach -- just as long as he could complement its players with European experience.
But entering a second term as head coach, it's Klinsmann's other role as technical director that is potentially setting the stage for some culture wars within the domestic game. With the rubber really hitting the road on making all of the U.S. game's moving parts cohere meaningfully and sustainably, Klinsmann's progressive bent is likely to be on a repeat collision course with not just the league's vision, but other structures within the game that aren't functioning as he hopes they might.
With his characteristic optimism, Klinsmann sees all this as an opportunity. Speaking to the English press at the U.S. training camp this week, he said: "There are so many disconnected pieces floating around. The whole structure is not in place, like it is in a traditional football nation."
"But this is also a useful opportunity... This is pretty cool because you kind of have a clean sheet of paper and say 'how are we going to do it?' You work in England or Germany and it's pretty much set in place and you have to work with the pieces that are there. It's difficult to change them."
"For us, we can change the youth approach and the curriculum of coach education and makes changes with the college coaches and talk to them about doing the season differently or the feeder system differently, then it can happen. We can have an influence, that for me is exciting."
Exciting, but not without friction. It means that while we might think we're in a relatively fallow period of team experimentation and assessment after one World Cup cycle, we might actually be at a critical moment for the Klinsmann project that represents both opportunity and danger for U.S. soccer and the coach himself.
Interest in soccer is growing rapidly in the U.S., though the domestic game only accounts for a modest part of that interest, with an ever increasing array of international leagues and coverage for consumers to choose from. Mindful of that, European giants such as Bayern Munich and Manchester United have opened dedicated U.S. offices dealing with everything from territory rights to sponsorship and recruitment.
A debate over the future shape of the domestic game and how it relates to the national team may be necessary but if it happens, encouraged by Klinsmann's zeal for reform, it's also going to take place during a period of unprecedented competition for fans' attention -- and against a backdrop of European business plans that have absolutely no interest in how U.S. Soccer (and the systems that underpin it) bridge any credibility gap to the standards set by the established order.
Also, the year or so following a World Cup can be a dangerous time for coaches anyway -- just ask Bob Bradley -- but Klinsmann's capacity to be an iconoclast as well as a unifier is well documented at the German federation and at Bayern. It has left him isolated before. A lot depends on the genuine collective willingness of those bodies, as well as players, he is challenging right now.
Depending on who you speak to, Klinsmann getting the U.S. out of the group of death but no further at the World Cup represented a qualified mandate for the future, albeit nothing he could parlay into unquestioned authority for the next four-year cycle. Klinsmann will need to pick his battles and not overplay his hand -- something he hasn't necessarily managed to do in the past.
That said, it's not as if Klinsmann has changed the terms of his overall development strategy anyway -- even if the tactics in pursuit of it have been adapted. Nobody can claim to be surprised that Klinsmann wants more young players to gain top-flight experience in Europe; it's been his position from the start. In fact, his position on that is more nuanced than "Europe = good, MLS = bad," too. Part of what he wants is to see players who can use not just the higher playing standards, but the ubiquitous media coverage and societal interest in the game in these leagues, as a crucible in which to develop.
Where those outside influences don't exist, Klinsmann wants players who will make the effort to generate the closest possible facsimile. It was interesting to note Klinsmann citing the likes of Matt Besler and Kyle Beckerman this week as players whose job it was to mentor young players in what it meant to be a national team player. These are players who've stayed in MLS and made virtue of themselves as self-starters to battle their way into national team contention. That's a route, says the Klinsmann doctrine. Not for everyone, and one that requires an uncommon degree of self-discipline and motivation -- but it is a route.
For those who do stay, Klinsmann wants more of the game intensity and comparable recovery cycles so that young American players can emulate their European peers. It means looking at MLS scheduling, keeping the reserve league partnerships under review, monitoring success rates and credible paths for academy players and if promotion/relegation remains off the agenda, ensuring at least that parallel production lines like NASL or USL Pro can continue to play a part in developing players like Miguel Ibarra at Minnesota United.
Broadly speaking, it means making all parts of the system and those who run them more accountable so that fewer players fall through the cracks and that when they do, somebody is held responsible.
Klinsmann's demands about calendars, the conditions under which young players compete, where they play and his continued comments about the choices made by the most celebrated of the current U.S. generation are not going to stop; nor should they. It's his job to examine every moving part of the system and go beyond to examine and improve what they actually do.
Inevitably, that's going to ruffle feathers and have knock-on effects. For example, fresh off the back of Ibarra's call-up, the already bullish NASL may at any particular moment have less interest in national unity than pushing back against an MLS "top division" they see as aggressively going after markets they're already in (with a new team in Atlanta and discussions in Minnesota).
The fact that MLS and Klinsmann are at odds with each other could be an opportunity for the upstart league to score points in its ongoing battle for recognition, and ultimately to challenge the assumed right of MLS as the division one league.
It doesn't matter so much whether those claims are credible right now. It's more that once the myth of a collective project is at least raised as just that, the space for claims and counter-claims like these is opened up. The story quickly moves from "Second division player gets call up" to "What does the term 'second division' even mean in the system?" And before you know it, Klinsmann's fairly innocent personal opinions on the merits of promotion or relegation are being parsed for political intentions by either side.
So yes, the U.S. is facing Colombia and Ireland in the next few days as thoughts turn to next year's Gold Cup. Those games will naturally examine the credentials of college kids, NASL players, European and Mexican league prospects, while also demonstrating the capacity of the old guard to ease in the new generation.
But the U.S. is also potentially facing itself and what type of soccer nation it wants to be. Klinsmann the reformer/unifier will have his own vision that he continues to champion. It may initially bring more arguments than solutions -- it's even possible that by the time genuine change happens, Klinsmann himself may be long gone. But sometimes a maturing soccer nation needs to go through some painful periods of self-reflection on its way to realizing itself.
That realization starts with some awkward questions.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.