Klinsmann's power, lack of playing time in Europe: U.S. round table
As the U.S. men's national team prepares for friendlies vs. Colombia (Friday, 2:30 ET -- ESPN and WatchESPN) and the Republic of Ireland (Tuesday, 2:30 ET -- ESPN2 and WatchESPN), the feel-good vibe of the 2014 World Cup feels increasingly like a distant memory. While the team is progressing, tension is increasing between national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann and Major League Soccer.
With that in mind, ESPN FC convened experts and former U.S. internationals to ask their opinion on Klinsmann, the state of the team, the "club vs. country" debate and the road ahead for American soccer.
ESPN FC: In light of all the headlines over the past few months -- the strong quotes, the tension with MLS -- do you still feel good about Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. coach?
Jimmy Conrad (former U.S. defender): I would say that he got us out of a difficult group at the World Cup, but I was a little concerned that giving him a contract extension before he got judged on what he should be judged on. It remains to be seen what else he can do.
My main concern with some of the comments that he made about Michael [Bradley] and Clint [Dempsey] recently -- and really it's been throughout his whole tenure -- is if he's wearing the technical director hat (Klinsmann has this title as well as that of head coach).
I don't mind if he says that as a coach. If he says, "Hey, I need my guys to be playing wherever to bring their A-games"; that's his right to do so. As a technical director, where he's now in charge of overseeing the whole program, it makes me concerned that he's continuing to push a European agenda to a certain extent.
Bob Gansler (former U.S. and Kansas City coach): I think he brings certain things to the table that [the U.S.] haven't had before. At the same time, he's been a coach for not all that long.
That's not to say he doesn't have some special qualities. First of all, we've never had a player of that magnitude that then became a coach and then led the forces. At the same time, just because you're a good player, doesn't mean that you have all of the answers, it just means you bring something special to the coaching group.
Do I think he has enough to help us go further? Yes. Am I of the persuasion that he's going to lead us to the "promised land?" I think that's a rather naïve approach.
Kasey Keller (former U.S. goalkeeper): Jurgen has said multiple times in interviews that he's trying to make players uncomfortable in their environment. If you know you're going to start every week, there's some complacency in that. He's trying desperately to fight that complacency.
If you're a professional soccer player in America, there's still a level of anonymity. The intensity isn't the same. I wouldn't have dreamt of going out to dinner on a Friday before a game out of the fear that if I play badly on Saturday, 10 fans are going to think I wasn't focused.
In MLS, guys are going shopping the day of a game. I think Jurgen, being from Europe, believes you improve by being under pressure and performing. We're not quite there yet.
Alexi Lalas (former U.S. defender): I think that Jurgen is valuable in asking questions that either we haven't been asked before as a soccer nation, or we don't want to answer. I think that Jurgen enjoys being provocative and agitating. That's a good quality. I value that. It often times can get to the root and the core of problems that exist, or problems that you didn't even know existed. Hopefully it can generate solutions.
But that doesn't mean that I don't disagree with Jurgen. It doesn't mean that I [have seen] the manifestation of a -- to use his words -- a proactive type of play, one that is different than the one that the U.S. has employed in the past, and one that lives up to the promises that he made coming in.
As I've said before, this team is at times, both individually and collectively, a better version of itself. I have no problem with that, but once again, in the context of what he promised, I don't see this sea change that many thought was coming and it doesn't' mean that it can't happen and might take longer. We're still the American team that I've known and loved all along.
Clint Mathis (former U.S. midfielder): I don't mind coaches coming in and shaking things up. Some of the best coaches in the world do that. At the same time, I don't necessary agree with just bashing MLS. We're still a young sports league. But it comes down to results. I didn't agree with the [decision to drop Landon Donovan] but Jurgen stuck to his guns and was able to have a pretty successful World Cup.
You have to understand that [Klinsmann] has a different mentality. His two predecessors, Bob [Bradley] and Bruce [Arena], understand the American player. Even though Jurgen's lived here for many years, he's had that European mentality growing up as a player and as coach. Whether they are the right or wrong decisions, I don't think we're going to know for many years.
Tony Sanneh (former U.S. defender): I would say yeah, I felt good about the performance at the World Cup. That was the measuring stick for me. The future looks pretty good and they performed in the group stage adequately.
Taylor Twellman (former U.S. forward): I've never been a believer that a national team coach should be there for more than four years because I think it's a huge challenge to keep the ideas fresh. So it's not Jurgen, it's in general. I think it's a very difficult job.
Peter Vermes (former U.S. defender; current Kansas City head coach and technical director): I have a lot of respect for Jurgen and he got the U.S. out of its group at the World Cup. But I emphatically disagree with him about the players in our league, that the only way you can become a good player is to go overseas.
"It does seem as though there aren't as many checks and balances, that [Klinsmann's] word is taken as gold. I think it's unhealthy in any system to have that. I think every person should be held accountable."
ESPN FC: Does Klinsmann have too much power within U.S. Soccer?
Conrad: I don't know about too much power but it does seem as though there aren't as many checks and balances, that his word is taken as gold. I think it's unhealthy in any system to have that. I think every person should be held accountable. Given both roles [coach and technical director], it gives him the flexibility and -- in his mind -- the freedom to make some decisions; that kind of unilateral philosophy where he could have carte blanche over revolutionizing U.S. Soccer.
I think there are some things that he's implemented that are good, and some not so good. Our coaching education should be better. The scouting infrastructure should be better. [Klinsmann's] in a great position to reduce emphasis on the prioritization of winning [at the youth level]. If he can figure out a way to do that at the younger ages, then those coaches will have their players passing the ball, and they can move up the ladder.
But he's speaking publicly about playing in Europe. What are our young kids going to read into that?
Gansler: I think you need the power and authority to get things done. If you are simply relying on the democratic process in positions like that, that can be a negative. But if it's simply a man who can make decisions without any kind of input, any kind of consensus from the people around him, then that can go astray too.
This is a unique soccer situation. [U.S. Soccer has] always been and always will be in a situation where we adapt, but not adopt. We can't use other people's formulas, we've got to make sure we know our terrain here and we come up with solutions for ourselves.
[Klinsmann's] got to surround himself with capable people, not "yes men" who will genuflect at his every recommendation. I think he has some of those and he needs more.
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Lalas: I think it is interesting that he is now the technical director as well. I believe in the separation of technical director from manager.
We throw these "technical director" and "sporting director" titles around with, in most cases, very limited definition or very varied definition from team to team and country to country.
I look at the technical director position as someone who is setting out from top to bottom the philosophy of how you want to play, the type of player that you want, and is able to articulate that on a consistent basis both privately and publicly.
That is a big job. I think it's very difficult to do both of them well.
Sanneh: I don't think [Klinsmann] has too much power. I think he has a lot of responsibility, and [the USSF] may have to make sure they put in some checks and balances.
What you hope is that, in the long-term, he grooms the next generation of U.S. coaches, and that they all stay on the same page.
Twellman: Look at Germany: Oliver Bierhoff is the technical director and Jogi Low is the coach. I think that's the way I would go about it. It just feels better to have two guys with the same goal in mind. You don't want all "yes men."
Vermes: Well I'm the coach and technical director in Kansas City so I guess I'd be hypocritical if I said that [laughs]. For me, I think it helps me make decisions that are never going to sacrifice the long-term. Overseeing all of soccer in the country is a big job, but I don't pretend to know enough about the specifics of who he has working under him to be able to give you a good answer.
ESPN FC: Klinsmann has criticized U.S. players since the World Cup -- their form has dipped, they're riding the bench, etc. All of which begs the question: Why aren't there more USMNT players getting starting roles in Europe?
Conrad: Coming back from the World Cup, there always seems to be a dip in form. Speaking for myself, you've reached the pinnacle of your career and you've worked so hard to get there. People are looking at you through different lenses. You're a World Cup player now. There are expectations.
As for the overseas guys, I always ask if there is prejudice against American players. Jozy [Altidore] has talked about it, Clint [Dempsey] has talked about it and Landon [Donovan] has talked about it. They're not afraid of it, but it gets tiring. 'I've got to do it again tomorrow?' They don't get that break or luxury that European or South American players do.
Gansler: I think first of all, you've got to be careful. When you send folks who aren't ready, or who might never be ready -- when you put that into their ears that going to Europe is your way to a starting spot on the national team, maybe you're doing them a disservice. Maybe that's not the way they do get better.
On the other hand, I don't think that when you play in MLS as opposed to riding the bench anywhere else -- I think you get better by playing. You get better by having responsibility on the field. Just because you can put on your resume that you played on these teams in four or five different countries in Europe, that doesn't make you a better player. That just makes you a more adventurous person.
John Hackworth (U.S. Under-15 coach; former U.S. assistant): I don't think that's an objective way to measure whether we're making progress or not. So many factors go into that: being able to get a work permit, having a club and a coach who wants American players. We're fighting so many cultural aspects that you can't quantify it.
If you look at our younger kids who are overseas, I think there are more young Americans right now at really good clubs than there have ever been. On the senior level, I think it's dropped a little bit. But right now in my U-15 pool, Ben Lederman is at Barcelona, George Acosta is at Estudiantes in Argentina, Tim Weah is at PSG. You have a lot of young guys who are at big clubs and playing really well.
Keller: Now, American players don't have to go overseas. In the past, MLS would've tapped out guys at $200,000. Now guys like Graham Zusi and Matt Besler are making around $1 million and that's not much less than they're going to make in Europe until they prove themselves over there.
That's a big reason guys are going to stay. Also, Besler and Zusi are going to play every week in MLS. If they are at a mid-table Premier League team or one in a relegation battle, they're fighting day in and day out just to get on the field.
"If you're a professional soccer player in America, there's still a level of anonymity. The intensity isn't the same. I wouldn't have dreamt of going out to dinner on a Friday before a game out of the fear that if I play badly on Saturday, 10 fans are going to think I wasn't focused."
Lalas: This is where I would agree with Jurgen in that the ability to withstand the mental pressures that come with juggling club and international soccer are important. Your mental fortitude, and working on improving the mental fortitude of players is key.
But that has nothing to do with where you play. Maybe in a certain sense, because it was so unique and so new to them, it threw them for a loop. A lot of it is situational, changing teams or whatever. If they didn't get enough time off, that's a legitimate excuse, but you know what, you're going to have to figure it out.
Sanneh: Just look at how many more American Designated Players there are now than before. Could Dempsey be starting somewhere in Europe? Yes. Could Bradley be starting somewhere in Europe? Yes. Kansas City has a couple of guys who could be starting.
There are players here now that MLS will pay to keep but to be honest, MLS doesn't make it easy for guys to leave given the way the contracts are structured. It's not like it's easy.
If it was easier, more guys would take the chance to go do it and be successful. It's not easy, and for all practical purposes, unless you're a free transfer, it's really a risky investment for what they're charging you to play outside the country. And I think Americans are somewhat expensive in MLS when you judge what they've accomplished.
Mike Sorber (former U.S. assistant coach): I think we've broken down a lot walls, but it's still a challenge for the American player. Is there a bias or are American players just not good enough? I guess you could make the case that it's a little bit of both. But we probably have more young kids in Europe now than we've ever had. If you look at that last U-20 roster, before that used to be college guys. Ultimately, if you're a good enough player they will find you and they will play you.
Twellman: The reason you have players playing in MLS right now are, for one, salaries are better.
When Bob Bradley was coach, these contracts for American players were not there. When I was trying to go to Preston North End in 2007, I was specifically told that there will be no American designated players in MLS other than Landon Donovan. So when players had a chance to move to Europe and triple their salary, it's human nature to look at it.
In 2014 it's a different story, because guys can get that money in MLS.
Jurgen's 100 percent right that there's a dip after the World Cup and that's what he's trying to address. It's not just Matt Besler and Graham Zusi and Bradley [who have struggled]; Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, Fabian Johnson have been all over the board.
It's not an MLS problem; it's a U.S. problem.
In part two, our round table participants address the eternal "club vs. country" debate and Klinsmann's opinions on Major League Soccer.