Part of the reason my brain exploded last week is that I was trying to nail down what, exactly, is Klinsmann's mandate for the US national team program. If we're going to say that Klinsmann should be judged on his contribution beyond senior national team results, then we need to discover what those contributions are.
This is what I've been reading - it's not complete, and I didn't rehash the exact extent to which Klinsmann called out his team for defensive-minded, intimidated cowardice after the Germany and Belgium games. Nor, in fairness, did I go into detail about his run of positive results in 2013.
The first thing I noticed is how little you hear about the Latinization of the program, compared to what we were told in 2011. You may notice other things.
You will also notice Vice Sports (certainly no friends of mine) failing to get a comment from US Soccer on Klinsmann's exact contributions. I have also written the US Development Program asking for specifics on what Klinsmann has brought to the youth program. He seems to be responsible for extending the program to ten months. Which apparently now is not good enough.
Happy reading, suckers.
“One of my challenges will be defining how the US should represent its country,” explained Klinsmann. “What should be the style of play.
“It’s not just about the players but the people who are surrounding them in this country, like the media and coaches. There is such a wealth of knowledge in this country that in Europe and South America is unheard of."
Klinsmann will have a say in matters beyond the senior national team. "It's about the bigger picture," he said of his role. "Obviously, the main responsibility is the men's team and moving that program forward." He also talked about the youth scene and grassroots soccer and keeping recently appointed national technical director of youth development and national team alumnus Claudio Reyna "very close to me." "He will always be a part of the staff and sit with us coaches at the table, so I can tell him how I look at the game," Klinsmann said.
Klinsmann had in the past spoken at length about forging an American soccer identity. He indicated Monday he thinks Latin players will be key to that process. While Bradley was widely criticized for not using enough Latino players, Klinsmann will likely take a different approach.
"There's so much influence coming from the Latin environment over the last 15, 20 years that also has to be reflected in the U.S. national team," Klinsmann said.
"Soccer in a way reflects the culture of a country. Having studied the U.S. culture over the last 13 years, it's quite a challenge, because you have such a melting pot in this country. One of my challenges will be to find how a U.S. team should represent its country, what should be the style of play -- is it more of a proactive, forward-thinking style of play or is it more of a reacting style of play."
Klinsmann mentioned numerous times that "it's important to understand your [U.S.] culture." And after living in the United States for the past 13 years, Klinsmann feels he is ready to incorporate more of this country's melting-pot society into the U.S. team.
"There's so much influence from the Latin environment that has to be reflected in the national team," Klinsmann said.
With those "power" concerns put to rest, expect Klinsmann to make some changes to the U.S. youth system. Some of the changes he briefly touched on include making youth teams' style of play and culture reflect that of the senior team and to continue to build on the growing academy system currently in place. Klinsmann pointed that the biggest difference between the game in this country and any of the top 10 soccer nations is the amount of time youth players spend field.
"This is what is really missing compared to the leading soccer nations around the world, the first 10-12 nations around the world, is the amount of time kids play the game," said Klinsmann. "If you have a kid that plays in Mexico 20 hours a week, and maybe four hours of organized soccer but 16 hours of unorganized soccer just banging the ball around in the neighborhood, but if he gets up to 20 hours it doesn’t matter how he plays it, with his dad or with his buddies in the street, this will show later on with his technical abilities, with his passing, with his instinct on the field and all those things, and I think that’s certainly an area where a lot of work is ahead of us."
“He’s trying a lot of different things. Some of which are new to the players, some of which are new to the staff, some of which are new to many of us,” Gulati said. “Part of the attraction, obviously, is that he’s an innovative guy and wants to try things. And not necessarily things that have a 50-year track record of success, but some new things. And that always takes a little time for everyone.”
“The big challenge is for MLS overall, how can they stretch that season into a format that is kind of competitive with the rest of the world?" he asked. "Right now, it's not competitive. If you have a seven-, eight-month season, that's not competitive with the rest of the world."
“If there's a national team player, he has to do extra work," Klinsmann said. "He has to do extra weeks, and he can't go on vacation even if he says, 'Well, but I'm supposed now to have six weeks off.' If he comes and says that, then I give him a hug and say, 'Have fun the six weeks, but don't come back here.’ ”
JURGEN KLINSMANN: In European countries, there are two types of clubs: local soccer/sports clubs and professional soccer clubs, which may also include other sports. The local soccer/sports clubs usually serve people from youth through adulthood. So, there is a lifelong opportunity to participate and adult fees are helping reduce (though not eliminate) youth fees.
Plus, the local soccer/sports clubs tend to play 10-month seasons based on local travel and local leagues, not regional leagues and big tournaments with high fees and long-distance travel as is common in the USA.
Also, in Europe, the professional clubs have youth programs and they start signing up promising players at young ages and pay for their costs of training. So, the culture of sports participation and the professional club influence are much different and much stronger in Europe than currently in the USA.
Going forward, MLS clubs will have more influence in the USA, including providing free opportunities to play for talented players. Plus, we may see more American youth clubs partnering with international clubs, which will pay for the training costs of talented young American players. Chelsea, for instance, is experimenting with this right now.
Obviously, a big difference between the USA and European countries is that most promising young American soccer players will end up playing college soccer, while promising young European players have the goal of being professional players. There are many, many more college soccer programs in the USA than there are professional clubs in any European country.
But colleges cannot pay for youth development programs like professional clubs can. So, in summary, there are significant differences between the European sports culture and the American sports culture, which will not dramatically change anytime soon and which do impact the costs associated with youth soccer.
SA: Is the enormous geographic size of the USA a problem for the national team program as it scouts for talent and develops it? And if so, what are the solutions to overcoming the challenge?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: I look at the size and diversity of the USA as providing us with a tremendous opportunity, not a problem. We are blessed with a large, relatively wealthy, sports-oriented population that has invested in soccer facilities and organizing soccer so that millions of youngsters are playing soccer year-round. And, more attention is now being paid to developing soccer programs for underserved populations and geographic areas.
While we may have different and sometimes competing youth development soccer organizations, there are certainly opportunities for children to develop and play. In terms of scouting for talented players, youth clubs are doing it, youth organizations are doing it, colleges are doing it, professional teams are doing it, and our U.S. Soccer scouts are doing it.
So, I think we are probably able to identify most of the very talented young players. There are also more comprehensive and more consistent training programs being made available across the country, for example the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and MLS academies.
One trend I encourage, which has been successful in other large countries such as France and Germany that committed to youth development and which can now also be seen here in the USA, is to regionalize programs. This will cut down on costs, allow the youth players and their families to have more normal lifestyles, and provide for more development opportunities.
“If we want our players to someday compete against the best in the world, it is critical for their development that they train and play as much as possible and in the right environment. The Development Academy 10-month season is the right formula and provides a good balance between training time and playing competitive matches. This is the model that the best countries around the world use for their programs and I think it makes perfect sense that we do, as well.”
Klinsmann brings a unique perspective to evaluating the American soccer landscape. A native of Germany, the former World Cup champion has been involved in soccer almost his entire life as a player, coach, television analyst and consultant. He relocated to California with his American wife and two children after a successful professional career that spanned Germany, Italy, France and England. After 13 years in the United States, he has developed a deep understanding of the American mentality and approach to sports in this country. His education on the approach to identifying and developing talent in the U.S. was fostered by the fact that his own children have been involved in US Youth Soccer.
Klinsmann has a history of bringing innovative ideas to help reshape the organizations for which he coaches from the youth levels on up. Since becoming the U.S. Men's National Team coach, Klinsmann has emphasized the importance of creating a unique soccer style in American that infuses the country's blend of cultures, talent and perspective.
"I believe that the style of play should reflect the culture of the country, and that everyone from coaches, media and fans should have a voice in the process," said Klinsmann. "I especially look forward to discussions with all of the talented coaches around the country so we can work to improve the game at the grass roots level."
"There’s a lot going in the right direction with academies being developed and giving enhanced emphasis to youth development and coaching, and getting the players out there more often and in good training and competitive environments," Klinsmann told Goal.com. "But, at the same time, we need to speak with more people in the alternative structures of soccer and maybe look into structures that have not yet been used for soccer in the USA."
Klinsmann is quick to point out an example of a solid youth foundation in the U.S.
"For instance, the Hispanic soccer community organizes their own leagues and offer options that are far less expensive than the commitment needed to play in many other youth clubs," he said. "We need to learn from these alternative structures as well as to have better access to players in these environments for opportunities with state, regional, and national youth teams."
Klinsmann recognizes it will not be easy tapping into every nook and cranny of the large country’s talent pool, but he's excited and optimistic about the opportunities that are out there.
According to Tony Lepore, Development Academy director of scouting and coach of the under-15 national team, the academy aims to create a similar environment: “We’ve increased their training hours with a move to a 10-month season. There’s no longer a need for players to go outside of their club; it’s more of a one-club approach where one club can provide a program that is systematic.”
As the U.S. prepares to embark on the final phase of qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Klinsmann is aiming beyond a decent showing and sees the U.S. as a country that needs to be dictating the action. But its national team has never played that way because, in his view, no one ever demanded it. As a result, the players weren't physically or mentally conditioned to press opponents with the relentlessness of the best teams in the world. Long a believer in the constant monitoring of players, Klinsmann has instilled a system of regularly testing the team's strength and fitness and proscribing specific training regimens so each player can mitigate his deficiencies.
To Klinsmann, who has an American wife and has lived here for 15 years, it's because the culture has never demanded it. American players begin to feel as though they have made it when they get a college scholarship, or an MLS contract, at 18 or 19. While the rest of the world plays 11 months a year, Americans grow up seeing professional athletes play a seven-month season and taking the rest of the year off.
"We don't have the environment telling them nicely, 'OK you had a good week, but next week has to be better, and the next week again,'" he says. "Here it's: 'Oh, take a week off.' No, don't take a week off. If you take a week off as a programmer at Apple, you missed the train, you lost the job. You can't afford it."
Juergen Klinsmann: To be successful in international competitions any nation, not only the USA, needs a style of play that fits with their culture and it needs players capable of performing at the highest levels of competition. Historically, soccer enthusiasts have been able to picture the Italian style or the English style or the Brazilian style.
Today, everyone has in their minds the Spanish style. Behind the scenes through the federations with the cooperation of the professional clubs, some countries such as France, Germany, and Spain as examples, have been able to think through, plan, and implement ways to develop their players within the context of their country's style of play.
These are long term projects. But, they have been successful. That is what we have embarked on here in the USA --- define our style of play, share that style of play with our soccer community, get the current and future generations of national team players to understand their roles and responsibilities within our style of play, develop appropriate tactical approaches, share training methodologies, and encourage players to find environments where they can flourish. We will not get it all done overnight. But, we will make progress everyday.
And, as for finding players who can perform at the highest levels of competition, that really depends on more and more players following developmental pathways that allow them to reach their potential.
Diane Scavuzzo: What would you like to say to all the youth players out there about soccer? What would you like to say to their parents?
Juergen Klinsmann: My advice to players is to develop your own pathway. If you love soccer, practice it, play it, and see how far you can and want to go with it. Maybe you will be a recreational player. Maybe you will be a select player. Maybe you will play in college. Maybe you will become a professional.
There is no one way for all players.
ussoccer.com: Would you like to see a consistent style of play throughout the National Teams from the senior team on down? If so, describe what that is.
JK: “Yes, we would love to see a consistent style of play over time that is defined by being more proactive and more possession oriented. We want more confident players that have the technical abilities to play out of the back and to play out of difficult situations and really take the game to the opponent. We would like to improve the way we play against bigger nations by facing them eye to eye and having a 50/50 share of possession. We want to signal to them that we are here to play; we’re not just sitting back and hoping for a counter break. If that is the case here and there because we play Spain or Brazil then so be it, but over time we would like to see progress that all of our teams are really taking things in their own hands. That’s a lot of work obviously, and it also requires special talent. The key to all of this is the work that we do on the grass roots level through our Academies to develop our own players. To transition to a style of play that is more proactive and more dominant is a long term project.”
ussoccer.com: In your opinion, how important is it for coaches, particularly at the youth level, to obtain their coaching license?
JK: “I think it’s the highest priority for every coach to get his licenses upgraded, one step at a time but as quickly as possible, because it’s the highest sign of credibility. If you do not have your coaching license you do not have credibility. If parents send their boy or their girl to school, and the teacher doesn’t have the highest teaching license, they would question the school. They would probably change schools and take action right away. It’s the same with soccer. You don’t want your kid being coached by a coach that doesn’t have the highest credibility and doesn’t have the knowledge because he never went to those licensing courses and got his degree. We want to upgrade that as soon as possible. We want to send out a timeline for every coach involved in our programs to get his or her license to the highest level because then you have the knowledge and the capability to educate our players at the highest level.
“It’s also important because information flow changes. Today’s information is different than a license course held ten years ago. It’s a completely different ball game today than ten years ago. It’s a global game. We have to know what they do in Germany and Spain and Brazil in youth development. I want to encourage every coach to sign up for a licensing course for your next level. This is something that we badly need and if we don’t do it, we don’t have credibility. Therefore please coaches, get started.”
ussoccer.com: You just signed a contract extension, four more years as the head coach of the National Team and in the role of Technical Director. From a coaching perspective, why is it so valuable that you have this established for the next four years?
JK: “I think it’s very valuable because it's similar to coaches getting the next license done: it’s about credibility. It also offers the possibility to connect all the pieces in player development. It’s easier for me to talk to all the coaches out there, and my own coaches as well, if they know I care about those topics. The first two years of my work were very focused on the senior National Team because we needed to get the Gold Cup done, we needed to get World Cup qualifying done, and we needed to get our hands around the group. That was a lot of work. It always has the highest priority, especially now going to Brazil, but we also want to connect the dots. We want to speak to a lot of people outside there, whether it’s MLS, college soccer, our youth teams, or Coaching Education. When you do work outside of your senior National Team role, it definitely helps you in terms of credibility to have the title of Technical Director.”
Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to transform American football.
Not just the national team, but the nation's entire coaching structure.
''It also is vital I am involved in all the discussions with a lot of coaches out there, how we improve the grass-roots level,'' Klinsmann said. ''I'm fascinated by that approach.''
"When you talk to coaches and parents, it's very difficult for them sometimes to understand that the kid in soccer is self-taught. Coaches, different from baseball, basketball and American football, with a lot of timeouts and plays and all that stuff, are really just more the inspiration of the whole thing -- the guide, in a certain way. But he's not the decision maker on the field. This is a very different approach. Parents and coaches think they are making the decisions. I tell them, no, you're not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field. So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out."
Klinsmann resigned after the [2006 World Cup] tournament, citing “burn out.”
“The transition is happening now and step-by-step, over the years, we want to play with the bigger nations, to attack the bigger nations, and to possess more than them,” Klinsmann recently told me after we watched a training session of youth teams in Sarasota, Florida.
Mix yoga into the practice routines? No problem. Bring in a motivational speaker or two? Great.
Klinsmann is also responsible for “connecting the dots,” as he puts it, between American soccer’s grassroots and the national team. In Germany, professional club teams assume responsibility for developing young players. In the United States, Klinsmann has had to help build such a system, and without the financial assistance of a profitable professional league. Last year, Klinsmann was named the technical director of U.S. Soccer. In addition to his role as the coach of the men’s national team, he is now responsible for supervising and expanding the country’s infrastructure for developing élite soccer talent: selecting coaches for the national teams, helping design the curricula for the coaches of travelling youth clubs, and overseeing the scouting of amateur matches for potential talent.
“It has to be our goal to develop a style in which Americans will recognize themselves,” he says. “They have to be in front of the television and say, ‘Yes, that’s my team.’” Klinsmann admits that this is a bit of a challenge in such a diverse country where “no one is completely American.” But Klinsmann believes that the team’s playing style will eventually resemble something like the country’s assertive entrepreneurial culture. “Americans are proactive,” he tells me. “You want to be world leaders in everything you do. So, on the field, you shouldn’t just sit back and wait.” Although American teams have traditionally depended on counter-attacking—a type of strategy that involves exploiting an opponent’s aggression—Klinsmann hopes that his players will soon be more assertive and creative on offense.
The second thing Klinsmann believes is that if the United States is ever going to really succeed at a World Cup, a specific and significant change must occur within the team. That change does not necessarily have to do with how the Americans play; rather, it has to do with the American players being too American. Put simply, Klinsmann would like to see his players carry themselves like their European counterparts — the way he used to.
“Look, part of what we’re trying to do is excite people,” Gulati said. “And Jurgen’s charm is a piece of that. He’s a crossover. For us, at this point, it’s about selling the game in a way that, frankly, we haven’t had anyone, ever, do before.”
U.S. Soccer essentially turned over its house keys to Klinsmann. His base salary (said to be about $2.5 million per year) was more than any previous coach was paid. His support staff was larger than what any previous coach was given. His ambitions — to bring in an outside sports-training company, to push yoga and other unusual treatment techniques, to modify player nutrition, to analyze player blood work for deficiencies — were embraced and encouraged.
In December, at the end of a year in which the United States qualified for its seventh-straight World Cup, Gulati gave Klinsmann a four-year contract extension, as well as a new title, technical director for U.S. Soccer. The effect was to give Klinsmann even more latitude in dictating the direction of the national team — something he quickly showed by hastening the split with Donovan — as well as the overall progress of the sport in America.
Klinsmann, as he has done regularly, played a significant role in persuading Brooks to pledge his loyalty to the United States team. Recruiting players is not something most national-team managers become intimately involved with — particularly because it generally happens when the player is a raw prospect — but Klinsmann approaches the task like a college-football coach.
He arranges for a jacket or a shirt to be mailed out. He tracks the player’s statistics and minutes at his club team. He gets on the phone, often impressing the player with the credibility that comes from being a European legend.
For Klinsmann, these decisions are critical and no small part of the reason he wanted the extension Gulati gave him. He wanted security, yes. But he also wanted confirmation that for the immediate future, the path of American soccer will tend toward the mixed identity that he embodies.
That leads to the third factor: a functional development system that can crank out not just the occasional star, but enough top-level talent to fill a full 23-man roster.
Klinsmann seems to understand all this. It’s why he talks obsessively about team leadership and America's stars doing more to establish themselves in the world’s top clubs. It’s why he has insisted on being able to take the reins of the development program and is able to speak intelligently and passionately about efforts to revamp it into a more professional, more European model. And it’s why he talks about giving the American soccer fan on the couch something distinctively American to cheer for.
Initial results on the field were indifferent, although the root-and-branch reform of the technical side of US Soccer that Klinsmann was also charged with got under way immediately and the results began to follow (away wins in Mexico and Italy stand out). “You realise that a lot of those dots aren’t connected yet, especially in the area of youth development,” Klinsmann says.
“It [the organisation of football] was still connected to the other big American sports, where there are seasonal sports – four, five months this game, then you play basketball, then you play baseball. So they don’t have the 10/11-month seasons like the football powerhouses in the world. USA kids never really develop that rhythm of the game in the same way, the stamina and the pure focus on the game.
“No matter what level we’re involved at, it’s trying to connect the dots – we’re trying to connect coaches’ education, we’re trying to connect player development, we’re trying to connect the professional league to the bigger picture, the international picture. So – and this is all changing over the past couple of years – we introduced an academy system with a 10-month season. MLS extended their season longer and longer in order to become more competitive.”
Klinsmann claims to have told every player in the national set-up from the under-14s upwards that they can reach out to any of the coaching staff, including Klinsmann himself, to clarify the expectations for them. “By email, by text, by Twitter, by Facebook, whatever, you want to do we’ll be there. So you can’t say a couple of years down the road, ‘Oh if I’d known that’.”
Gulati has hitched U.S. Soccer to Klinsmann, giving him unprecedented resources and the responsibility to shape the direction of the national program. When asked how he would evaluate Klinsmann, he referred to the federation’s decision to give Klinsmann a four-year contract extension before this World Cup began. “In some ways, I did that evaluation when we re-signed him to a contract,” Gulati said, noting that he “had seen enough positive movement in not just the national team but in the whole program.”
Whether Klinsmann has made a marked difference in the philosophy of the United States youth teams or player development systems is something most followers of the team have little insight on (or interest in). But in terms of the national team, the barometer of Klinsmann’s success cannot be one game, or even four games, in Brazil. It has to be about his significant decisions.
"Jurgen has always said this isn't going to happen quickly," U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said in a phone interview last week.
Buethe mentioned the significant progress made in youth development since 2007. But all of that predated Klinsmann's hire.
Much like when he took over as national team manager for Germany, Klinsmann has inherited a recently revamped youth development system. In 2007, U.S. Soccer implemented the Development Academy, a partnership between the federation and the top youth club teams in the country.
Each year, approximately 80 clubs in both the under 13-14 years of age category and the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age categories participate in a 10-month season that is sponsored by U.S. Soccer. The schedule mirrors that of the top European leagues. During the season, U.S. Soccer coaches, trainers, and scouts evaluate players. It's a much better system than what existed previously when national team scouts were supposed to find players through mostly word of mouth. But Klinsmann had nothing to do with the creation or implementation of this system.
In a general sense, Buethe said that for the past three years Klinsmann has been observing the youth system and has coordinated better communication between all parties involved. He's met with coaches at every level and has suggested new training methods. At some point soon, Klinsmann will supposedly make significant changes based on his observations.
Further, Buethe scoffed at the notion that Klinsmann hasn't done enough for youth development and he blamed criticism against Klinsmann on this issue on a lack of understanding of the Development Academy system. However, Buethe did not respond to an email asking what specific changes Klinsmann has made already, if any, within the Development Academy system during his tenure.
“It's an educational topic we try to talk them through. You've got to understand again to take these things in your own hands, and whatever you lack in that moment, when these phases happen, that you have to work yourself back: 'OK, I understand that I'm not where I should be now ... for sure I'm behind now, so I've got to get myself back into pole position,' and that's what they're going through right now. They've lost their pole position because [the World Cup] was a lot for them. [And] our players are not yet in an environment where they actually get put into line right away.”
The current fitness issue is mostly about players coming off of offseason breaks and needing to build fitness, according to Klinsmann. The January camp always has been seen as something of a preseason gathering, but Klinsmann said the friendlies with Chile and Panama on Sunday redefine it as something more. He'd like to see them further along with their fitness when they arrive in camp.
“It's difficult for me now to get them out of vacation. Some of them played their last game in October. In October!” he said. “I want to help them get back into shape, get back into rhythm, but, oh, by the way, we're going to play [two friendlies]. So some learned over time and prepared themselves really well, and some don't have that knowledge yet.
“They don't have that 'oh, OK, at the beginning of December, go to Athletes' Performance in Phoenix and get myself fit.' That culture we don't have yet. What the other sports are doing really well, they use their preparation for preseason, four to six weeks prior to going into preseason with their NBA team, NFL team of whatever, they go to these fitness institutes and they get themselves fit.”
Klinsmann says he and his staff give the players an outline they should follow, “but the culture is not there. They've got all the material. They should have done that [work] twice a day, but reality is still different. Reality is, education-wise, we are not there yet, that they understand, 'Oh, I've got to do this, I've got to do that.' It's a lot to discuss. It's fine. It's just where we are right now, and we want to keep improving.”