This week’s war of words between USMNT Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann and MLS Commissioner Don Garber is exactly what the league needs to make it more entertaining and intriguing off the pitch than on it. It’s just a shame that the teleconference call wasn’t streamed online for the rest of the soccer community to hear.
While senior figures like Garber would prefer not to air his dirty laundry in public, his passionate yet defensive onslaught against Klinsmann was just the sort of drama that the league needs. For years, MLS has been woefully dull outside of games where other leagues such as Serie A and the Premier League have daily soap operas that can, at times, be more absorbing than the action on the field.
In a league and federation that is so politically correct and on message, it was refreshing to hear Garber speak frankly regarding his opinions about Klinsmann’s state of the nation of the players at his disposal. Personally, I’d like to hear more from an unfiltered Garber who is willing to stand up for his league with comments such as his “I will do anything and everything to defend our league, our players and our owners..”
It’s a positive sign when Garber takes off his gloves and comes out fighting. Too often, he’s been predictable, sticking verbatim to the message and appearing unwielding and almost robotic with his answers to media or in fan forums. Garber’s teleconference today to respond to Klinsmann’s comments provided a rare glimpse of the Commissioner speaking from the heart and, for once, throwing the PR script away. Ultimately, he appeared more human.
The fascinating power struggle between Garber and Klinsmann shows men passionate in their beliefs, and steadfast in their principles. Garber is the born leader, standing up for his product and reaching for the stars as he continues to hold true to his goal of turning MLS into one of the best leagues in the world by 2022. Klinsmann has the unenviable task of trying to reach his goal of the US Men’s National Team reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Both goals are aggressive, and do-able, but they both require an enormous amount of progress in the next few years.
While Garber is the optimist, Klinsmann is the realist. Viewed outside the bubble of USMNT/MLS, Klinsmann’s comments seem blunt but accurate. His star players are not going to be pushed at the same level in MLS compared to the top leagues in Europe. That’s not a dig at MLS, but more a reality of the situation. MLS is growing by leaps and bounds, but the level of play is not UEFA Champions League quality. Plus, more importantly, there’s a lack of depth in Major League Soccer, which means that Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have no fear of losing their starting places week-in week-out for their respective teams. Complacency and a lack of hunger can set in even with determined players such as those two.
Having said that, Dempsey was in a slump at Tottenham Hotspur, was played out of position and was reeling from the constant turnover of managers. Bradley wasn’t in a good situation at AS Roma either as a series of transfers pushed him down the pecking order. Neither situation was ideal, so the timing of the MLS deals were perfect. However, Dempsey and Bradley should have stayed in Europe to move to a different club to continue the fight to move up the ladder. Instead, they both initially took a sideways step. And for Bradley, it can be argued that it ended up being a backwards move with Toronto FC collapsing once again on and off the field.
The disagreement between Klinsmann and Garber is productive for US soccer. It shows that both men want change. For Garber, his change is getting everyone to toe the party line in order to prevent the disruptions or road bumps along the way. With Klinsmann sharing his comments publicly this week about Dempsey/Bradley, promotion/relegation and the stark reality about the quality of MLS, his words resulted in getting the media “off message” when it comes to MLS. When you have ESPN devoting an entire halftime show to a debate regarding the pros and cons of promotion/relegation, and ESPN’s Taylor Twellman saying that NASL is on equal footing with US Soccer and MLS, you know that the message has gone off script. Hence the reason for MLS’s impromptu teleconference.
While Klinsmann’s words are disruptive, the controversy and Garber’s teleconference call will only serve to bring more awareness to MLS, to tune in to see what will happen next. It’s exactly what the league needs — an enthralling story that draws viewers in to see and hear what Garber may say during a halftime interview of a MLS playoff race.
Both Klinsmann and Garber want to see the sport grow in this country, but both have differences of opinion of how to get there. At the same time, Garber is flexing his muscles by trying to do Sunil Gulati’s job of keeping Klinsmann in line (“I think (Klinsmann) needs to think very hard about how he manages himself publicly”). Klinsmann, on the other hand, has every right as Head Coach and Technical Director to demand the best from his players and for them to be tested at the highest level, whether that’s in Europe or MLS.
Hopefully Klinsmann sticks to his guns and pushes MLS to continue to improve its quality. These bumps in the road are entertaining, but they’re also vital to push the game to the next level in this country.