Everyone loves a boy-done-good story. Who could watch Jordan Morris’ raw emotion as the Stanford man banged in a rock-solid finish last week against his national team’s most rival-y rival and not feel proud for him?
Are you kidding me? A college kid sticking it in the faces of Mexican professionals, starting and scoring before millions of TV viewers in two countries. That’s gonna get the Yank soccer supporters’ stars and stripes flapping in the breeze.
But once we get past the stirring narrative, the moment probably deserves more conversation. Heck, pretty much everything U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann does now merits debate and discussion; even Klinsmann says that’s OK, that we need these conversations.
ESPN broadcaster and analyst Taylor Twellman lit the match on this one, and he’s a good one to do it, a former national team player and an MLS Golden Boot Winner.
The quick background is this: Morris was the first collegian since 1992 to score for the United States men’s national team. For our Millennials, 1992 was a wildly different time in American soccer, unrecognizable today. There was no top-tier league back then, only an evolving alphabet soup of indoor and outdoor associations, none of which were truly “major” in scale, ambition or ability. So capping Joe College in the early 90s was no biggie; it happened all the time.
A college kid starting today should kick up some conversational fuss.
Perhaps that’s exactly what Klinsmann is attempting here, goosing the establishment into action, agitating the system as catalyst for change and stripping away those confounded comfort zones. That is, after all, the basic formula Klinsmann chose for improving the player pool, killing off comfort zones with zero prejudice and then marginalizing players who won’t or cannot buy in.
Mostly, at least. With Klinsmann, we’ve certainly seen that everything is more “guideline” than “rule.” Decrees are routinely applied unevenly.
Here is what Twellman had to say on Sunday’s ESPN2 broadcast about Morris’ starting 11 appearance last week in San Antonio:
“On one hand, you look at it, Jurgen Klinsmann’s controversial decisions on the rosters have panned out. [Julian] Green, [DeAndre] Yedlin, [John] Brooks at the World Cup. Imagine if Chris Wondolowski had scored against Belgium. But on the other hand … in 2015 we have an amateur player representing the U.S. national team against Mexico. Major League Soccer is in its 20th year. The NASL for that matter is progressing. So now we have an amateur player representing the national team. Let me ask you this: Is a third or fourth division semi-pro player representing England against Scotland at Wembley? It would never happen. It would never happen in Germany. So why is it happening here?”
Why indeed? Intentionally or not, Klinsmann’s four years have been full of these moments. He creates difficult dialogue, forcing us to think about how things are versus “how should they be?”
Twellman went on to wonder if this is a subtle shot at MLS and at the country’s general soccer hierarchy. Klinsmann has hinted that too many MLS teams get some things wrong, especially in the clubs’ general emphasis on post-game recovery at the expense of longer-term strength and conditioning targets. (The counter to that argument, of course, is that club coaches are paid to win games, not to develop talent for national team ambitions. Sometimes those goals align – but sometimes they don’t.)
Of course, Klinsmann has also not-so-quietly poked at the MLS bear. He’s initiated some pretty public dust-ups, in fact, most notoriously last October. Klinsmann dressed down Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey for choosing MLS over further testing abroad; MLS Commissioner Don Garber, quiet to that point on other episodes of small weapons fire aimed toward his league, said “enough!” and hit back in what made for delicious theater. He called the manager’s comments “detrimental” and “personally infuriating.”
So is this Klinsmann getting smarter about the way he calls out MLS? The U.S. roster for last week’s match in Texas was majority MLS, after all (14 of 22 were MLS men)?
More likely, it was just more Klinsmann quirkiness; I’ve written before about how Klinsmann’s rosters and lineups are more art than science, about a mad scientist-type who plays hunches and specializes in the vagaries of intuition.
So there is certainly a chance that Klinsmann is sending no message at all; he’s just being quirky Klinsi!
Klinsmann said before and after last week’s match that rosters to this point in 2015 are about assembling a scattering of “little pieces,” about digging up “little answers … about players knocking at the door” of the national team program ahead of a busy and complex summer of roster assembly.
Like all coaches in all sports, Klinsmann is free to pick and choose as he darn well pleases. After all, he will ultimately be judged (and employed) on results, so it’s only fair that he can select rosters and lineups as he sees fit.
The U.S. manager certainly doesn’t have to explain things to us. On the other hand, Klinsmann can certainly help himself by doing so.
This is where he probably loses some of the initiative. If Klinsmann really wants to get everyone on board – fans, media and the larger establishment of U.S. Soccer and MLS clubs – then he needs to be better about explaining where all this is going. He needs to complete conversations rather than just start them.
More to the point here, he needs to be better about explaining the contradictory messages – and Morris is the best example yet.
Morris plays at Stanford, which is certainly a quality college program. But it’s a college program! If you don’t count a few weeks of spring practices, Morris plays four months a year. Klinsmann’s first shot at MLS (and by extension, the players employed within) was about a league that plays only nine months a year.
Maybe German math works differently; personally, I can squint really hard and still not see how the algebra on that one.
If he wants players who push and test themselves at the highest possible level, that’s fine. But don’t make that a central tenet of your administration – and then select a guy who might miss a practice because he has lab on Tuesday afternoons.
Four years ago as Klinsmann took charge, it was OK to talk in generalities and concepts about elevating the product through comprehensive player improvement. He wanted to enhance the macro by beefing up the micro. And fair enough.
But judging from results, it’s hard to make a case that things have improved even marginally. Things are certainly OK – but they were “OK” under previous managers Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati courted and eventually broke the U.S. Soccer bank for Klinsmann because he thought and hoped (we all thought and hoped) that Klinsmann was uniquely positioned as a transformative figure. It was about getting off the “OK” sticking point.
Maybe it’s OK to take a step back before taking a bunch of steps forward. Morris the man isn’t a step backward – this is no shot against him. (Nice goal, kid!) But selecting a college player feels like a step in the wrong direction.
If Klinsmann is still taking steps in the wrong direction to make a point, four years into his time in charge, well, maybe that’s the conversation we should be having.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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