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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