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Jurgen Klinsmann

Don’t blame Klinsmann for US’s shortcomings, by Simon Evans


Jurgen Klinsmann is under-fire from his critics in the US once again, this time for his comments that some of his players didn’t return from the long winter off-season in the shape he expects. Yes, remarkably it is Klinsmann who is being criticized, not the unfit players.

In most countries, statements such as Klinsmann’s would lead to questions being asked of the players. Certainly if Roy Hodgson or Vicente del Bosque were to say the same of English or Spanish national team players fitness, a media inquest would follow. Who wasn’t in shape? Why weren’t they fit enough? Which players didn’t do their off-season workouts? Why when the staff gave the players workout programs didn’t the players keep to those plans? What is the coach going to do about it?

But this is soccer in America and this is a foreign coach criticizing American players, so it is Klinsmann who is feeling the heat – not the players. “You can never argue that US soccer players are unfit,” said Alexi Lalas. Never Alexi? Even when you are coach of the national team and you see the fitness levels of your players when they entered training camp? 

Of course Klinsmann, as he often does, brought in other issues and instead of sticking to the specific problem of players not doing what should be their professional duty, he again threw in the question of the length of the MLS season – a largely separate issue.

The real problem with MLS isn’t the length of the season – it is the lack of intensity of most of that season. There are some benefits to a playoff system but one undoubted weakness is the way it undermines the importance of regular season games, particularly in the first half of the campaign. The absence of a relegation threat only adds to the problem. 

Intensity affects fitness of players but also many other factors – the sharpness of touch, the alertness and awareness, the mental toughness, the levels of discipline. Playing games that really matter, week in week out, improves all those aspects of a player’s game. Playing games where a couple of defeats on the bounce isn’t a big deal has the opposite effect.

Klinsmann’s friends and foes both tend to highlight his frankness, the lack of a ‘filter’  which can cause him to upset people and start debates such as this one. But in this case, I suspect he isn’t saying all that he thinks about this problem. It is possible that last year’s big row with MLS Commissioner Don Garber has caused Klinsmann to self-censor a little.

But here is the real problem facing the former Germany striker: When Klinsmann took the US job he clearly hoped, and possibly expected, to see more of his players going to play in Europe where they would face greater pressure to perform at their best every week and he went out of his way to encourage those kind of moves. Instead, the opposite has happened as a number of players have left Europe and returned to MLS.

The January training camp used to be about bringing the second-string national team players from MLS in for some work while the bulk of the first choice players were doing battle (or at least trying to get a starting place) in the Bundesliga, Serie A or the EPL. Yet in terms of American players in Europe, the situation has gone into reverse – almost back to the days when goalkeepers were the only Americans playing at top European clubs. Apart from Geoff Cameron at Stoke, the outfield players really making the grade at the top level in Europe are German born and raised.

It is great for MLS to have the likes of Altidore and Shea in the league this season but their return also highlights the fact that American players just aren’t being successful in Europe. Indeed since Clint Dempsey at Fulham and Steve Cherundolo at Hannover, there hasn’t been an outfield export from the States to Europe who has been a truly long-term success. 

For all his ‘frankness,’ Klinsmann doesn’t talk about that. Nor can he really talk about the overall absence of players of the Dempsey or Landon Donovan quality level in the 22-30 age group – itself a damning indictment of the youth system. But the fact is the coach has to work with the products of the American development system from the past 10-15 years and they are, on the whole, not good enough to play, week in, week out, at the level he wants. 

After a run of five games without a win, it is understandable that some are critical of what they see as Klinsmann’s over-experimental approach to tactics and personnel. But Klinsmann looks like a coach who is trying so many different approaches in the hope that somehow, somewhere he will find something. He has the task of finding players or a playing system that will bridge the gap between the kind of soccer he knows is needed to be successful on the international stage (see Germany, Spain) and the reality of the talent-level he has been given (see MLS).

There is an air of frustration among media and fans when it comes to the U.S. national team and sometimes that manifests itself in criticism of Klinsmann. The feeling is the team should be progressing better and quicker. And it should. But while coaching, selection and tactics matter, the big picture, uncomfortable though it may be for some, is that the United States is still, simply not producing enough, really top-level players.

It is going to take time for the next, hopefully more talented, generation to come through and Klinsmann probably won’t be around to work with them. But in the meantime he is absolutely right to demand the basic minimum that his players turn up for national team training camps fit and ready to play international soccer. 

What is really puzzling is how such a demand is considered, in any way, controversial.

Editor’s note: Every Thursday, World Soccer Talk featured columnist Simon Evans shares his thoughts and opinions on world soccer topics. You can follow Simon on Twitter at @sgevans.


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  1. jmansor

    February 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm

    I can’t speak for everyone, but JK seems to be blaming the loss on fitness instead of taking the responsibility to make this team better. Klins was hired to bring the US to the next level, so stop talking and make it happen.

    • bryan

      February 6, 2015 at 1:54 pm

      here’s the thing…the players were OBVIOUSLY gassed against Chile. so losing that game, after switching to a 4-4-2 with no crazy player experiments, can only be chalked up to a lack of fitness. instead, ask why more subs were not used.

      in the Oct/Nov friendlies it was clear that most of our MLS players were exhausted from the WC and the season. even our Euro players looked off. at that point, they were in a camp for like a week. how is that on JK?

      at the WC, any fitness issues DO fall on JK. but in the end, this guy is 15-10-8 in friendlies, won the Gold Cup with a B squad without blinking, placed 1st in the Hex (par for the course), tied the US record with 22 points, set a US record in 2012, and then got us out of the GoD we “had no chance in”.

      in 2011, it took some time to get things moving and the whole Brian Strauss article came out and there was a big reaction. then we go on a tear in 2012, maintain most of that form in 2013, and do a decent enough job at the WC.

      for me, this is a new cycle and the time to integrate new players/system is now. if, come the Gold Cup, the team is still playing poorly, we can have a chat about JK no longer working.

      • Steve

        February 6, 2015 at 2:48 pm

        Here’s the thing: The US was practicing in Carson, CA, just a couple hundred feet above sea level, and then went to play in Chile at over 1800 feet. In MLS when teams have to travel to Denver, Colorado (lower elevation than Rancagua), they get in the day before the match so the elevation doesn’t affect the players as much except the first 15-20 minutes of the game. The USMNT traveled and trained in Chile for four days prior to the match, which wasn’t long enough to acclimate.

        It seems like some planning was messed up.

  2. bryan

    February 6, 2015 at 1:08 pm

    awesome stuff. outside of the part regarding relegation, i think this is spot on. i cannot believe the way some (most?) in the media reacted to this comment. if they are unfit, they are unfit. Lalas saying it’s impossible for Americans to be unfit is flat out dumb. how is that a real analysis?!

    while we can question potential overtraining leading to soft tissue issues at the World Cup, there is no denying the team was flat against Chile towards the end. like our ex-fitness coach said, this was never an issue before. so why, under JK, are players coming into camp not in shape? or does he just set the bar higher? to me, what you can ask JK is why players are not buying into his fitness plans. why didn’t Lahm?

    to me, that is what lands on JK. but a player being unfit is 100% on the player and I love that JK called it out. and when both Jozy and Yedlin essentially confirm it, what more do you need to hear?!

  3. AJ

    February 5, 2015 at 9:35 pm

    As an admitted conspiracy theorist, I’d hope Gulati & Garber didn’t put a bug in these guys’ ears to come back to MLS.

    I figure JK will start to look for some more German-Americans or any other European-based players until Garber screams loud enough that Gulati fires JK and we’re set back to 1998.

    The game is becoming more global. You can’t win internationally just with players who play in their country of origin.

    This nonsense about accomplishments. Arena won Gold Cup 2002 by beating sides made of almost entirely of domestic-based players or lower-level European players. He basically did the same thing 2005.

    Bradley had one of the best U.S. sides ever and it limped its way to the 2007 Gold Cup.

    Portugal 2002 & Spain 2009 are anomalies. If you want the “any give day” situations. Klinsmann took one of the sorriest looking sides to the World Cup, with a terrible draw and got further than we thought we would. Hell we got further than the “World Player of the Year”.

    It only ends 1 of 2 ways. Garber goes or Klinsmann goes. They won’t be able to co-exist until 2018. I fear JK will be the one that goes.

    • CTBlues

      February 5, 2015 at 11:22 pm

      It shouldn’t matter if Klinsmann and the Don can get along they have two different goals. One needs to win on an international level now to keep his job and the other is trying to make a young league relevant with no real time limit.

  4. Smokey Bacon

    February 5, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Maybe MLS and Jurgen can reach a compromise. MLS will promise to produce fitter players if Klinsmann plays them in their best positions and improves results. I still don’t see how anyone can say the MNT is better now than when a Bob Bradley was in charge. Fitness maybe a symptom but it’s not the complete story. Tactics and team selection still matter last time I looked and Klinsmann has been lacking in both areas.

  5. Beyond 442

    February 5, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Every state in the country focuses on 433 for its ODP program. Jurgen says that we all need to be on the same page, and then plays three at the back. I wonder what the full story is about Tab being dropped so Jurgen can bring in his buddy.

    Jurgen *might* be a good coach. But for the sake of his player’s development he needs to be able to work with the existing system – not against it.

    • CTBlues

      February 5, 2015 at 8:07 pm

      No, he needs to fix the broken system so after he gets fired because people thought he could turn rocks into diamonds the next coach or even 2 coaches from now can reap the benefits of the changes being made now under Klinsmann.

      • Beyond 442

        February 6, 2015 at 12:21 am

        What changes is he making?

        • xtrip

          February 6, 2015 at 11:43 am

          His recommendations are gold. Unfortunately the federation isn’t willing or ready to change. It’s embedded deep in our system. If you dont get, you will never.

          • Steve

            February 6, 2015 at 2:38 pm

            Klinsmann is the federation. He’s the Technical Director of US Soccer, for all age groups.

            • xtrip

              February 9, 2015 at 10:28 am

              You must not be serious. USSF is the federation, the governing body. Klinsmann can only give advice and recommendations as his role as technical director. Big difference, learn.

  6. CTBlues

    February 5, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    I thought Klinsman’s interview on Fox Sports yesterday was good and one of the best quotes he said was the US media and fans will get more educated and that when players loose a game here they don’t get the same stick as they would from the media and fans if they were in Europe or played one of the big 4 sports in the US.

  7. Bo

    February 5, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I can’t stand hear Lalas and his hate for Jurgen. Makes me sick. Jurgen is one of the best things to happen in US soccer. Almost any country and most clubs would love to have him.

    • Joe

      February 5, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      He has not done any better than any other US coach we have had. Bob Bradley got first in his qualifying group and in the world cup…Prove to me he is the best.

      • Bo

        February 5, 2015 at 4:31 pm

        He won a won a gold cup. Got first in concacaf qualifying. Beat Ghana who we had lost to each previous time. Almost and Should have beat Portugal but at the end was the players faults so drew. Has pushed USMNT to play top quality friendlies.

        • KapUSMC

          February 5, 2015 at 5:53 pm

          Accomplishment wise, he is still behind Bradley and Arena. Both won gold cups. Both qualified first in their group. Arena had a quarter final in WC, and Bradley probably had the best result in modern US history with silver at the Confed Cup, and beating Spain at the height of their reign. Joe’s statement was fair. I don’t think JK has been bad, but I don’t see how by any measure you could declare him the best thing to happen to US Soccer either.

          • xtrip

            February 6, 2015 at 11:41 am

            You are just looking at the surface, scratch beneath and you’ll see the reasons why he is good for US soccer.

            • KapUSMC

              February 10, 2015 at 12:52 pm

              Again, I don’t think he’s been bad, but I think he has progressed things much either. I’m not a JK hater, but I’m not his biggest fan either.

              Lets go beyond just the results I listed. He has excelled at recruiting those with multiple options of what nation they pick. If JK is at the helm, I think Subotic and Jersey Joe have a good chance at playing for the yanks. That’s a good thing. He has been more open to pulling in players like Morris and Ibarra, and I think that is a good thing. He is making more of a concerted effort with Olympic qualifying than previous coaches, and that is a GREAT thing. He has had some positives.

              But he has some glaring failures as well. For all the talk of possession based soccer and getting away from “Bunker Bob”‘s mentality, the US has struggled with possession. The were last or second to last in this WC in terms of possession, and conceded the most possession EVER in a WC game against Germany. There hasn’t been any development in streamlining a national playing style. As Beyond 442 mentions below, we are currently playing a different style in the ODP system than the national team. At least the 4-3-3 is pretty standardized now. Back when I played ODP, everyone was doing whatever that individual region coach wanted. Its better than it used to be, but this area is where the biggest improvement for future growth and familiarity can come from.

              There has been good and bad under JK, but again I haven’t seen anything where you can say he has been great, or especially to where you can say “Jurgen is one of the best things to happen in US soccer” as Joe did.

        • Tim

          February 6, 2015 at 7:20 am

          Almost??? Well thats still not good enough and Bradley took the team to the confed cup finals and ALMOST beat Brazil.

          • Tyler

            February 8, 2015 at 3:13 pm

            He also needed a 3-0 result against Egypt and help from Brazil to even advance in that tournament. Are we forgetting the 1-3 loss to Italy and the 0-3 loss to Brazil? It’s not just about comparing achievements, we as a soccer nation have to acknowledge that real chance is necessary if we are to continue progressing the way we all want to.

  8. xtrip

    February 5, 2015 at 11:16 am

    Well said. One of the few supporters championing Klinsmann and his philosophy. Most top coaches from abroad can dissect the US system into the same pattern in no time. Even people like me sitting on my desk typing are aware of fundamental issues US has. That has nothing to do with available talent but infact how that talent is destroyed. Without a proper development path, support and eventually landing into MLS trap, the system is fail and will continue to do so.

  9. Kei

    February 5, 2015 at 9:54 am

    “But this is soccer in America and this is a foreign coach criticizing American players”

    Feel like you could have just dropped the mic right there, Simon.

    Klinsmann is heavily criticized (oftentimes unjustly) not only because his candor and honesty rub so many in the milquetoast fan and media sectors completely the wrong way, but mainly because he’s so transparent in his ambition of deconstructing the status quo in the American game — most certainly upsetting for the powers that be. The only thing worse than a straight shooter from Garber’s & Gulati’s perspective is a straight shooter who wants to duel with them both.

    The gaffer is absolutely justified in questioning the fitness of his players right now. And with the recent trend of the best players running back home, it’s an issue that will be cropped up and magnified on an annual basis around this time, long after JK has been ousted from his managerial post.

    • Steve

      February 6, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      The status quo in America is sending our players to Europe to play and then bring them into the national team.

      It has been this way for a long time because that’s the only place high-competitive soccer was played.

      The status quo is changing. We don’t have to send all of our players to Europe anymore, as Mr. Evans suggests. Even Klinsmann gets this. He may have criticized Bradley, but he encouraged Jozy and Shea to come to MLS.

      • Tyler

        February 8, 2015 at 3:16 pm

        Evans doesn’t imply that we need to be sending each and every US player to Europe, however the top Americans should absolutely be playing with all the other top players in the world. That this would be in the best interest of US soccer seems facially indisputable.

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