When Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to be the new coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2011, there was much excitement over the appointment of a successful innovator that would help propel America forward in the world of soccer. Transforming the United States into an elite soccer powerhouse would not be easy but it seemed more possible than ever before under Klinsmann’s tutelage.
Three years have passed and it is obvious that the challenges set forth by Klinsmann have resulted in players and officials struggling to be on the same page with the German. Between expecting players to adapt to new positions and having them be regularly tested in foreign leagues, Klinsmann is testing just how committed the players are to taking America further than ever before on the international stage.
Whether the USMNT actually does succeed may be based off the amount of belief there is in what Klinsmann feels is necessary to take the US even further in the World Cup.
Ever since Brazil, Klinsmann has experimented with players in terms of what they are capable of. We have seen the likes of Jermaine Jones, Mix Diskerud, Michael Bradley and others demanded to become more versatile by accepting new responsibilities. Based off their last two matches, the transition for many of these players has been a mixed bag.
After excelling in Brazil as a holding midfielder who proved adept at making key contributions on both ends of the pitch, Jones was surprisingly called upon to line up at as a center-back against Honduras. Outside of being badly beaten in the air from a well-taken set piece, Jones impressed both at defending and distributing the ball from the back.
In terms of Jones’ evolving role with the USMNT, becoming a center-back may be the best solution for the German-American to prolong his international career. Having played in the heart of the defense for both Schalke and Besiktas, Jones is familiar with the position which may serve as his best chance to still be in contention for Russia in 2018. He didn’t seem unfamiliar with his role as he withstood plenty of pressure from Honduras especially in the second half.
A fantastic diving tackle he made on the Honduran attacker Romell Quioto highlighted his strong athleticism in terms of physicality and agility. He worked well with Matt Besler, especially in the first half before the US made a number of substitutions that unsurprisingly affected the team’s chemistry.
As Klinsmann praised the leadership Jones brought to the team at halftime, it was clear that he had already left a good impression. It should serve as a challenge to the likes of Omar Gonzalez, John-Anthony Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and others that they are going to have to contend with Jones in order to maintain their position. If Jones were to solidify himself in the back, he would become the best center-back on the team with the ball at his feet. Jones would incorporate Klinsmann’s desire for a higher defensive line which helps keep possession. Being able to hold onto the ball better further up the field would help avoid inviting too much pressure from opposing teams as the defense wouldn’t be pushed too far back. Jones still needs to be tested in more competitive matches and has to improve with contending balls in the air, but make no mistake the possibility of a 36-year-old Jones starting for the US at the 2018 World Cup doesn’t seem very far-fetched.
The other note-worthy aspect of the starting XI against Honduras was Mix Diskerud starting as a defensive midfielder behind Michael Bradley. After not playing at all in Brazil, despite traveling with the team Diskerud looks more motivated to play defensively and work harder at improving that aspect of his game. As a defensive midfielder that is fit enough to cover plenty of ground, Diskerud allows Bradley to play more forward.
Yet, while Diskerud did play well in regards to winning the ball and bringing it up the field, the partnership between him and Bradley needs to improve. Getting Bradley and Diskerud on the same page proved to be tough because Bradley is a box-to-box midfielder who naturally reverts back. In the second half against Honduras, both Bradley and Diskerud tracked back which provided Honduras with too much of the ball. As a result, neither did enough to cut out the Honduran attack from further up the field.
While Diskerud had to get accustomed with his new position, Bradley’s issues perhaps indicate he is not confident with what Klinsmann expects from him. He struggled in Brazil being more forward and seems more assured being further back. Yet, obviously Kilnsmann believes Bradley is talented enough creating chances further up the field as shown with the assist he created for Jozy Altidore after Diskerud had won the ball. Diskerud is a talented attacking midfielder but few can produce the piercing aerial ball Bradley delivered to set up Altidore.
Along with new responsibilities when playing for country, Klinsmann has consistently expected that his players would challenge themselves in the best leagues in the world. Klinsmann believes it is vital that senior members of the USMNT play abroad in order to compete against the best countries in the world.
In Klinsmann’s eyes, MLS is not one of those leagues.
Much scrutiny has been made over the defensive rant Don Garber made against Klinsmann, after the former German international expressed disappointment that the likes of Bradley and Clint Dempsey chose to return to MLS when they could have stayed in Europe. The fallout from Garber’s heated words in regards to the competitive quality of MLS has given American soccer fans the opportunity to question what the best direction is going forward for US Soccer.
Garber of course represents the best interests of a soccer league trying to capitalize on the increased popularity and media coverage of the sport over the last few years. The MLS commissioner is the spokesperson for angry MLS owners who took offense to Klinsmann’s critical comments about the competitive difficulty of MLS because it damages the league’s brand.
Yet, Klinsmann does not work for MLS. He works for US Soccer, which is a separate entity (but joined at the hip by Soccer United Marketing). He is also a pragmatic realist who is being paid handsomely to get the best out of the USMNT. And in order to get the best out of the USMNT, there is no denying that American players would be better prepared to take on the best players in the world if they participated in the same leagues as they were in.
Garber’s defense of MLS was well-intentioned but an overly sensitive response that highlighted the inferiority complex many Americans share about the quality of soccer produced in the United States. As soccer writer and commentator Juan Arango put it on Twitter, “Only in the US would people ask for a coach to get sacked…over telling the absolute truth.”
That “absolute truth” is that while MLS has grown exponentially since its inception, which Garber deserves credit for. But he over-stepped his authority by stating Klinsmann has to uphold a responsibility for MLS. Klinsmann’s only responsibility is to transform the USMNT into a squad that is realistically capable of winning more than just the Gold Cup.
When Klinsmann was hired, it should have been expected that the German was going to have priorities and interests that would conflict with those shared by the established figures of American soccer. As seen during his tenure managing the German national team, it’s also in Klinsmann’s nature to irk leading players and executives with his methods and opinions. As a result of his contract extension, Klinsmann has been afforded the security to be honest and candid regardless of whom he offends.
Through expressing disappointment over how Bradley and Dempsey chose to return to America where they would be virtually guaranteed starting places, Klinsmann is questioning the ambition, professionalism and drive of his star players. His comments may also deter players who have been linked to moves back to MLS such as Altidore, Diskerud or Juan Agudelo from actually coming back to America (it’s interesting to note that the expansion side New York City FC has made it known that they want their 3rd Designated Player to be an American returning from abroad).
For years, I have always felt like MLS and US Soccer had similar interests and vision in regards to the growth of American soccer. Yet, after the tenures of former MLS coaches Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, the USMNT is now under an outsider of American soccer who has inspired the country to question its priorities. Former US international Alexi Lalas astutely pointed out that if nothing else, Klinsmann is providing the American soccer community the opportunity to ask the questions needed for future growth.
Frankly, Klinsmann isn’t even the first USMNT coach to question competitive quality of MLS. Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, had his doubts over whether MLS could fully challenge his players. According to Taylor Twellman, Bradley encouraged the former USMNT striker to go to the English club Preston North End even though he preferred to stay with the New England Revolution.
So between the USMNT coach, who voices disapproval over how the best Americans are returning to MLS and a league that is trying to enhance its profile through countering the perception that it’s a lower league, it begs a very big question for American soccer fans – what’s more important, the growth of MLS or the USMNT?
Is it more important to have the likes of Dempsey, Bradley and others challenge themselves and stay abroad for most of their careers or for them to be the renowned figures of America’s own soccer league?
From the MLS perspective, the league can’t become on par with those in Europe competitively speaking if it can’t hold onto its best players. While it’s proven to be great for extending the careers of older players, Major League Soccer will need to get international players in their prime in order to further grow on a competitive level. Unfortunately, that won’t happen if the league can’t even hold onto its own native stars.
Yet, as American soccer grows, demand for the USMNT to improve will increase while patience decreases. Many may decry that Klinsmann has the attitude of a “Eurosnob” after playing in Germany, England, Italy, and France, but his experience and knowledge gained from the most competitive leagues should still inspire trust in his guidance.
Overall, it’s a tricky balance. Klinsmann wants to satisfy demand for US Soccer but his pursuit seems to be at the detriment of the growth of MLS on a competitive and business level.
However, there is no denying that Klinsmann cares about results and challenging American players to go further than ever before.
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