August 1, 2011
By Michael Lewis
MEET SOCCER'S HYBRID
German-born Klinsmann's understanding of U.S. soccer might be the tonic needed
NEW YORK -- He was born in Europe, yet Juergen Klinsmann talks like an American.
|Juergen Klinsmann: "I think America always likes to decide, on its own, what is next. This guides maybe towards a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game . . . instead of sitting back and waiting."
Photo by Michael Lewis
He has lived in southern California for the past 13 years -- Huntington Beach -- which has allowed him to watch and absorb the game and its culture.
Only time will tell whether that combination will mean a windfall for American soccer in general and for U.S. Soccer in particular.
If you want to get technical, one of the most important things in his life as the new U.S. National Team coach is his American wife.
After all, if Klinsmann had not met and married the former Debbie Chin and lived in the states for the past 13 years, he probably would not be able to understand the challenges he faces as U.S. National Team.
Then again, he might not have been named the coach and would not have been standing at the podium of a news conference at Niketown in midtown Manhattan being introduced as the 35th man to coach the National Team on Monday.
Given his successful and diverse background, the 47-year-old Klinsmann is the first coach of the U.S. National Team that has won a World Cup (with West Germany in 1990) and coached a team in the greatest show on earth (finishing third with Germany in 2006).
"Jurgenís experience, both as a player and coach, and as a resident of this country Ė and I think all three of those are important Ė we think are huge assets," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "The latter solves whatever we think about having an international coach, and whether theyíll know America, and know the difference between Duke and the Portland Timbers, and all the things that are specific to the U.S., like the role of education, geography and so on. Jurgen has that. Heís been a resident of the country for 13 years and has studied a lot of things. Heís lived around the world. Heís multi-lingual."
He was optimistic about his outlook and in his answers, but the 47-year-old German realized that he faces the challenge of his coaching career.
Klinsmann was named coach on Friday, replacing Bob Bradley, who was fired a day earlier. It will be Klinsmann's charge to get the American side up closer to the Mexicans, who defeated the U.S. in the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup, 4-2, and prepare it to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. As technical director, it also will be his charge to get the country to play the same kind of style.
You can say good luck to anyone trying to his or her hands around a country that has a mainland that spans some 3,000 miles across with four time zones and more than 300 million people.
Klinsmann said he has studied the American culture with the help of his wife and two children. He might have given a preview of what type of team we might see in the next few years, given the American mentality.
ďMy understanding is that you donít like to react to what other people do," he said. "I think this is maybe a starting point. I think America never really waits and sees and leaves it up to other people to decide what is next. I think America always likes to decide, on its own, what is next. This guides maybe towards a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it.
"It always depends, also, on your opponent. If you play Brazil or Argentina, you might play differently than maybe a country in CONCACAF, but it is a starting point. If you say we want to start to keep possession, we want to start to dictate the pace of the game, we want to challenge our players to improve technically in order to keep the ball. All those components you have to build into your training sessions, have to build it into the curriculum for the youngsters because the earlier they start with that type of work, the better it is."
Klinsmann reminded his audience that Barcelona and all its beautiful football was not born in one day. It took 20 years to nurture, combining with the right players.
"Barcelona was not born in the last couple of years," he said. "It was born, the style of play now, in the early 90ís through Johan Cruyff. It took 20 years for that moment today that we see and all admire."
He was brought in to fix the U.S. National Team, or at least to bring it to a higher level, yet Klinsmann said there was nothing wrong with the team. He noted the Americans had qualified for the World Cup for six consecutive times since 1990.
ďI donít think there is anything wrong with the team," he said. "They lost a Gold Cup final against a very, very good Mexico team that, over the last couple of years became one of the top 10 teams in the world and have a lot of talent. When you come into a situation like this, you analyze every individual player, the team itself and the program, which Iíll have the chance to do during the next couple of weeks to see how I can develop them further. You build on what was built before, and if you look back on the past 20 years in this country, a lot has been built."
Not surprisingly, Klinsmann said he had his own ideas for the National Team program that he "will, step by step, introduce the ideas that I have, always double checking if it suits the American game. Iím not coming in here to be the European guy. Iíve lived here for 13 years, so I think I know a lot about certain issues. But I think you can also be proud of what youíve achieved over the last few years, where soccer is now. Look at this press conference. Look at three or four soccer television channels. Who would have thought that 15 years ago? Itís a lot of movement going on, and I want to be part of that movement and help out with it. There is a lot to do.Ē
Indeed there is.
One of Klinsmann's challenges is trying to find an American style that everyone plays. Certainly not an easy task because of the vastness of this country.
ďI deeply believe that soccer in a certain way reflects the culture of a country," he said. "Having studied the U.S. culture over the last 13 years, itís quite a challenge. You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. Every coach obviously has his own ideas and then you have the whole challenge of youth soccer in this country being based on a very different model than anywhere else in the world. Your educational system is completely different than the rest of the world.
"One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? Is it more proactive and aggressive, a forward-thinking style of play? Or is it more reacting style of play? That comes with the players that you have at your disposal. . . . I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define that style. What suits us best? What would you like to see and identify with? I think a great example is the womenís team, and how they played their World Cup final. This is how America wanted to see their girls play that game, and they did an awesome job."
Klinsmann wasn't finished talking about the subject.
"If you talk about Brazil, you know how Brazil plays," he said. "You know about Argentina, you know about Italy. They sit back and wait for one mistake, and if you do, theyíre going to kill you. We defined that with Germany in 2004 which was a very difficult process but we worked through that process and now itís settled [on] that style of play."
Every time he turns a corner, Klinsmann will find a new challenge and it won't necessarily be with the National Team. Trying to get everyone together on one page at the youth level is one top priority.
ďThere are a lot of different challenges ahead of us, especially on the foundation level and the foundation is youth," he said.
He then rattled off the many youth soccer issues that have been hampering the development of the game.
"How they should be trained, how often they should train, how much time they should spend with the ball, how they should develop their talent," he said. "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. 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 doesnít 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 thatís certainly an area where a lot of work is ahead of us because if you look at MLS, they took major steps forward. Itís come a long way but itís still a hectic style from the college game, which slowly we have to get it more on a technical level. We have to get it on more comfortable level with the ball and so there are developmental issues. Itís come a long way but we have a ways to go still to break into those top 10 in the world. We need to be realistic that we are not belonging there right now, or not yet.Ē
Klinsmann's first challenge will come next week, when the U.S. hosts Mexico in an international friendly at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. He said that he expects to announce a team on Wednesday.
"That isnít going to be too easy since a lot of players had their breaks and some havenít even played a game yet in the new season in Europe," Klinsmann said. "But, thatís all just part of the job."
It's also the start of a job, a new challenge that Klinsmann hopes will take him and the U.S. National Team into the knockout rounds at Brazil 2014.