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The problem with Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer is the root, not the stem

Written by Will Parchman


Jurgen Klinsmann’s post-Mexico press conference was his usual post-loss cavalcade of cheery sentiment wrapped tight in a dour package. His drawn face danced over the troublesome American vowels and soft W’s, presenting a picture few of us saw. He said the U.S. had played well, on balance. At one point, Klinsmann suggested the U.S. had deserved the third goal more than Mexico. There was and is a richness to that a bisque can only aspire to.

The game touched off a firestorm of opinion consuming entire houses and neighborhoods of thought. What do we do with Klinsmann? And what does it mean that his job was never really on the block, regardless of what happened? Can the U.S. really not find anyone better? Does this feel like an abusive relationship?

The 23-man roster for the eventual 3-2 loss to Mexico was a shade north of 29 years old. So was the XI. Klinsmann seemed to put the entire 2018 cycle on hold for this game, calling in the aged horses that barely got him through 2014 alive in order to get through 2015 in one piece. The trouble with old gear, though, is that it tends to blink off at the most troublesome times. So it went with Kyle Beckerman, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and the rest.

But even more troubling than that? Gyasi Zardes and Jozy Altidore, the only two players in the XI under the age of 27, were arguably the two most anonymous.

I think this is where we have to start with any true analysis of Klinsmann. We can decry his tactics – and they deserve scrutiny – but crazier managers have done crazier things and won. The truth is that he’s clung to a strike partnership that probably peaked five years ago, has juggled positions on the back line like a circus clown, and he’s dipped his roster into the YNT end of the pool like one of the newly dead warily testing the River Styx.

And none of that is untrue. Klinsmann controls the pool. It is his to bend and work like a glowing piece of iron. Four years is plenty of time to mold it into a younger, less profoundly sad version of what he has. But I think we need to shift the spotlight to something greater. Something that transcends all of this.

(As a brief aside, Klinsmann often talks about the media scrutiny in this country being less glaring than Europe, which is an obvious and true thing to say about soccer in America. Most major columnists at the nation’s dying cadre of large metro newspapers don’t watch soccer and rarely make it to MLS games. But consider that Klinsmann’s background of experience was being Photoshopped onto a cross during his final days at Bayern Munich. That isn’t criticism. It’s pillorying.)

The truest, barest sentiment Klinsmann has ever expressed about his thought process was delivered in an innocuous package last month. The U.S. was overrun by Brazil 4-1 in Foxboro, and Klinsmann was typically deferential. And then he said this.

“They’re not used to that,” Klinsmann continued. “It’s a tempo that is played in the (UEFA) Champions League. They’re always two thoughts ahead. That’s a level we’re trying to catch as fast as we can.”

All of Jurgen Klinsmann, in 32 words.

Klinsmann is right. Of course he’s right. It does not take the Champions League to play at that level, but it takes that level to play in the Champions League. Players like Neymar were there before they ever even arrived in Europe, but then again, they arrived in Europe for a reason. It’s one thing to summit. It’s another thing to stay there for long without the buoyant oxygen provided by European competition.

We all knew this about Europe and we knew Klinsmann’s opinion on it. In more than a few ways it’s why he was hired. It’s the most obvious of truths and yet somehow the most galling. Every time Klinsmann brings this up he references a soreness in the American soccer psyche that has never been filled. Whatever Klinsmann or Europe or anyone else thinks, the root cause of that soreness isn’t about envy (though there is some of that) or anger (though there is some of that, too) but longing. Like a healthy but hopelessly lonely man airdropped into a 60-year wedding anniversary celebration every four years.

But here’s the thing. The uncomfortable truth is that there is nothing Klinsmann can do about any of this. There’s nothing any one person in his position can do. Ever. The problem, as we’ve taken so many side-splitting pains to document on this site, is on the other end of the pyramid. It is in grassroots soccer, in the literally thousands and thousands of coaches who make Clint Dempseys what they are before Klinsmann even knows about them. Klinsmann, who famously railed against the upside down pyramid in a well-documented rant in 2010 on ESPN, clearly knows this better than most.

To me, Klinsmann looks as though he made a chest-inflating boast about eating a 120oz steak in 60 minutes in the waiting room of some restaurant-as-barn concept in Lubbock. Seeing the size and terrifying nature of the thing wasn’t enough to knock him off his horse, but by the time he’d tucked into half of it, he realized the problem was too big to solve. So as he slinks home, the rest in a doggy bag the size of a Great Bernard, he grumbles about the challenge, about the nature of it, about his own decision. But he does that last part internally, so no one will hear.

When we read Klinsmann’s comments, we often see him as an agent enacting change on the molecular level he seems to occupy. It’s certainly what he’d like to do. But what Klinsmann is really doing is offering public laments on a system he does not have the power or ability to change. He is complaining.

This is an important way to frame the discussion. Literally everything you hear Klinsmann say from now until the end of his tenure that does not include his own team selection and the vague course of the YNT he oversees as technical director is out of his control. As long as he deals with the day-to-day minutia of actually running a national team, he can’t actually influence the wider soccer zeitgeist of this country in any substantive way. Whether he could anyway is a topic for some discussion. And I do think he has positive influences to offer, but they do not involve coaching the men’s national team. And they absolutely cannot be done in a timeline shorter than a spread of years. Decades, maybe

Anyone who’s been to a great number of soccer tournaments in this country and seen our YNT system in action knows the issue will outlive Klinsmann, who at his current pace will make a dent but little more than that. And I think he knows this. If he does not, he’s more myopic than we knew.

Klinsmann’s blustery rhetoric about Europe and MLS has a hold on us because there is truth in it, because he’s seen the mountaintop, because we have not. And all that is true.

But the bigger issue is the public being sold the idea that Klinsmann has the power of change threaded through his words. And he does not, at least not in any broad way. The U23 team is on its way to missing its second Olympics since Klinsmann arrived. The U20 team deserves praise for making the quarterfinals of this summer’s World Cup, but keep in mind, in 2013, the U20 team went three-and-out and the U17 team didn’t even make it out of qualifying. We’ll see what they do this year. Progress? Maybe. But it’s slight.

In effect, Klinsmann is the canary in the mine, telling us there is toxicity in the air and to evacuate before we keel. That is its own benefit, to be sure, but it isn’t the root cause of the problem. In thinking Klinsmann is either the savior or the apocalyptic death head, we have played into a game of self-importance that I doubt Klinsmann initially intended. But through his frustration and mini-diatribes, the focus has ultimately fallen on him. The supposed beginning and end.

But it is not. You’ll probably never meet the men enacting real, substantive change in American soccer. They coach on a dusty spread of fields on floodlit Saturday nights. They drive creaky buses 100 miles to tournaments, the seats packed with boisterous 11 and 12 and 13-year-olds glued to their phones. They spend cumulative hours on grease boards, installing tactical nous and engendering a real sense of a team ethic.

This is the root of the issue. It is the root itself. Klinsmann can’t force more wonderkid 14-year-olds to love the game in a country that values the game with such adult-level nonchalance. Love is not forced, it is organically grown. And perhaps Klinsmann has a part to play in engendering that. I hope he does. But the fruits of that labor won’t be evident until he’s gone and we’re gone and future generations have our work to pour over in books.

In the absence of that love, Klinsmann The Canary can only herald the coming of the future age. In the interim, there isn’t much he can do to bring it about.

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