Klinsmann wants a conversation, not a fight, within the U.S. soccer community
CARSON, Calif. -- Jurgen Klinsmann knows exactly what he's doing.
The U.S. coach was back in the headlines this week, this time for having the audacity to report that some of his players had arrived here at the national team's ongoing camp in less than peak physical condition.
Predictably, media outlets (this one included) were all over it. Some of the harsher takes suggested that Klinsmann had thrown his players under the bus, that he was skirting his own responsibility for last week's 3-2 exhibition loss in Chile, a defeat that extended the national team's winless streak to five games. Others suggested that continued public criticism of his players would eventually cause Klinsmann to lose the locker room.
Only time will tell. But whether one agrees with his methods or not, what's certain is that the messages Klinsmann keeps sending his team and the larger American soccer community aren't by accident. They're calculated. They're by design.
"That's fair," Klinsmann said in an interview Thursday with ESPNFC.com, regarding the perception that he purposely uses the media to get certain points across. "I also say it because I know there will be a discussion about it. I want this discussion to happen. And if there are a couple of opinions out there clashing, it's good."
Opinions were certainly clashing in October, when MLS commissioner Don Garber insisted that Klinsmann stop saying that the domestic league might not provide the ideal level of competition for the very best Americans in the prime of their careers.
"When this thing came up with Don Garber, there was nothing offensive in it. I just said we need to have a discussion about soccer," Klinsmann said. "We need to have different opinions. I'm not saying I know it all, absolutely not."
Last month, Klinsmann said Garber had apologized for what many saw as an over-the-top reaction. Still, it's clear the coach still has issues with MLS. Yes, the quality of play has improved, he said, but he also notes that it still isn't the best league in the region. "An MLS club hasn't won a CONCACAF championship since 2000," he said.
But his biggest beef remains with the league's stubborn insistence on ignoring FIFA fixture dates. Of the five eight-day windows set aside by global soccer's governing body for international matches in 2015, MLS will play through four of them.
"The fixture calendar is so important," Klinsmann said. "In MLS, they play 34-40 games. But that's only if I leave them with their MLS teams during fixture dates, and then they lose international games. They're not playing any extra matches. The best players, the best teams, play 60 games a year. If we play that much less, how can we beat Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Germany? It will happen once in a while, but not very often."
Klinsmann has also taken issue with the length of the MLS season, which can be as short as eight months (nine, if you include preseason) for teams that either fail to make the playoffs or get eliminated right away. Asked what, as a practical matter, could be done to extend the season when much of the continent is in a deep freeze during the winter months, Klinsmann said MLS would have to get creative.
"They could have the northern teams start off playing in southern arenas, or play a few games in a dome or indoor facility," he said. (The Montreal Impact already play the first few home games of every season indoors.) "Try to stretch it longer or open it up to the FIFA fixture dates. That would help us develop our national teams."
Still, for a figure who seems to not just invite but embrace controversy, Klinsmann remains upbeat about the future of the U.S. program.
"I think we've made progress," he said. "I think we're getting more respect from Europe and South America -- they're not taking us lightly anymore. I think the World Cup changed the way a lot of people look at us. For us, the challenge simply is to become more consistent. I just relay that the more we work on it, the more we push, the more likely we'll be to catch up.
"If I back off, then I don't see any way to improve it."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.