Youth Culture Killed My Dog

Aston Villa is probably not going to hire Juergen Klinsmann.  That will be sad news for those of us who enjoy chaos and comedy, but it will come as a fairly intensive relief to Sunil Gulati, Klinsmann's current nominal boss.  While a Klinsmann defection would save the USSF the burden of his contract, it would leave empty both the national team coach position and the technical director.

The two simultaneous tasks of the long-term management of our international senior team and the guidance of the USSF youth development program require two people who can work together, but it still requires two (or more) people.  It isn't even about questions whether Klinsmann is capable of those jobs.  It just requires a moment's reflection - what if Aston Villa, or Spurs, or LAFC, or one of the world's other great clubs does decide to make a suitable offer?  US Soccer would be without a national team coach in a Gold Cup year, and without a technical director. 

A second moment's reflection, however, forces us to realize that we will in fact be in this position sooner or later.  Even if Juergen proves stone-faced to the blandishments of painted harlots, Klinsmann will age, or fail to qualify for Russia '18, or get hit by a peach truck.  It was not Klinsmann who put us in this precarious position, but Sunil Gulati.  Making one man indispensable to the growth of soccer in the United States was hilariously ill-advised, and it's simply a matter of time before we realize this.

Many dozens of more moments perusing a ream or six of what Klinsmann has actually said and done as technical director gives fodder for both optimists and pessmists.  Despite the USSF's unwillingness to confirm in detail, Klinsmann and then-youth technical director Claudio Reyna seem to have been the driving forces behind extending the US Soccer Development Academy's expansion to a 10 month season in February 2012...and the simultaneous policy of excluding non USSDA programs, such as high school and ODP. 

The Republic tottered but stood - the USSF's claims that only 1% of the nation's elite youth seem to have come true; high school soccer marches on and the US Youth Soccer Association is still selling ODP spots.  Reyna has since left to join NYCFC.  The good news was, he was replaced by the equally respected former player Tab Ramos.  The bad news was, Ramos kept his position as U-20 coach.  So now both senior and youth technical director positions are held by full-time team coaches. 

This may be why further progress against the demon pay-to-play seems to have stalled, but it's a strange task.  The USYSA, despite its official name, does not answer to Gulati or Klinsmann - quite the contrary, it's a powerful affiliate of the Fed itself.  Pay-to-play only exists because there is money to be made teaching children how to play soccer.  Skimming the cream of those willing to pay, as well as finding some way to scout those who can't, will probably have to be the realistic limit of USSF ambition.  As always, Adam Smith's Invisible Hand gives us the Invisible Finger. 

There's also the awkward prominence of MLS in the USSDA setup - awkward, that is, if the US national team coach insists on engaging MLS in a continuous snipefest.  What Klinsmann hopes to achieve by telling MLS how to run its schedule, let alone encouraging players to avoid the league entirely, is mystifying.  A glance at the USSDA map shows MLS all over the place - including Canada, which nation's presence in a USSF development map should tell you all you need to know about whose weight is being thrown where.

The implications seem obvious.  Either MLS becomes the driving force of professional youth development, or MLS pulls back and leaves the field for pay-to-play clubs.  No matter how much power Klinsmann amasses, he will still have to work through professional clubs looking after their own interests.

This doesn't even reckon with the non-MLS members of the USSDA, who are as a rule extremely large fish in their respective ponds themselves.  They were there before Klinsmann, and will be there after he leaves - maybe after MLS leaves.  I have every confidence that if Klinsmann tells the nation's clubs to play 3-5-2 from now on, the clubs will politely listen, and do pretty much what they were already doing.  As USSF Technical Director, it's possible he can make himself a nuisance about it...were it not for his continuing duties as USSF coach of the senior men's national team, which will probably take up most of his time.

So far, Klinsmann's changes (or Reyna's) have worked so well that in last summer's World Cup, the US featured seven players under age 24.  Sadly, five of those seven were products of European systems.  Perhaps Klinsmann takes credit for Chandler, Brooks, Green and Fabian Johnson (age 26) as products of his previous employer.   

Klinsmann's initial vows to Latinize the US national team have not yet borne fruit - the US had three Latino players on the 2014 team, an increase of zero from 2002 and 2006, and decrease by 2 from Bob Bradley's 2010 team.  (There are currently six Latino players on Tab Ramos' U-20 team.)

As technical director, Klinsmann's criticisms of MLS in particular seem silly.  Klinsmann took three players whose MLS teams didn't make the playoffs, and who therefore played a wholly inadequate eight months instead of the alleged minimum eleven.  One of those three ran more than any other player in the World Cup.  Never mind the fact that fitness has not been a problem for US national teams since Bob Gansler was coach, never mind Bob Bradley.  Skill and tactics are where we have traditionally been lacking, according to most sane observers.

If MLS had promotion and relegation, it would have potentially affected the motivation and desire of exactly one player - Chris Wondolowski, whose team finished second to last.  Perhaps Klinsmann would have chosen more players from bad teams if MLS had promotion and relegation, but if those teams had national team-level players, they probably wouldn't have been facing a relegation battle in the first place.

Even Klinsmann's scouring of Europe has a precedent, as anyone who remembers the Bora Milutinovic and Steve Sampson eras can attest.  Earnie Stewart and Thomas Dooley are in the US Soccer Hall of Fame.  The inductions of Davids Wagner and Regis are, as of this writing, still pending.

No matter what the result of the Gold Cup, the status quo should change.  If the US wins, Klinsmann should name a successor as technical director and carry on with his coaching duties.  If the US loses, Klinsmann should be "promoted" to full-time technical director until such time as Aston Villa or its equivalent takes him off our hands.  Afterwards, the two positions should be kept close, but separate.

And Sunil Gulati should really rethink how he's been running the men's national team. 

On the bright side, they're not as bad off as the women's national team.

[Slight edits to correct a factual bungle. So sue me.]