United States manager Jürgen Klinsmann poked and prodded Major League Soccer over the course of this year just like he tweaked his players. One by one, the actual and the perceived slights piled up and the fury increased as Klinsmann outlined his complaints about the schedule, selected college and North American Soccer League players this fall and shared other inflammatory platforms and positions. The disagreements and the fissures bubbled under the surface until MLS commissioner Don Garber could hold his tongue no longer.
The final straw came from a fairly innocuous and largely correct series of comments on Monday. Klinsmann sat next to potential MLS transfer target Jozy Altidore and laid his thoughts bare about the road ahead for Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey over the next four years.
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"Concerned? I mean, there’s nothing I can do about it," Klinsmann said when asked about the prospect of two of his top players swapping top European leagues for MLS over the past year or so. "Clint’s moved back. He’s moved back. It’s going to be very difficult for them to keep the same level they experienced at the places they were. That’s just the reality. It’s just being honest."
Honesty cut a bit too deeply here, particularly in light of the comments made about Landon Donovan, his career and the potential accomplishments left on the table ahead of his farewell against Ecuador on Friday.
MLS remains acutely sensitive to comparisons between other leagues after years of criticism about its fare. The standard of play in MLS does not require excuses or justification at this stage. MLS is a perfectly good and usually entertaining league with formidable teams and some talented players, but it is not the Barclays Premier League or Serie A. The rigors of those competitions present a greater challenge on the training field (prompted by the increased jockeying for places and the depth across the board fostered by significantly larger budgets) and in the fixtures themselves (played against stronger teams from week to week).
"I want him to get through the difficult time at Sunderland and maybe make a big step someday to a Champions League team in Europe," Klinsmann said. "That’s where the top players in the world play. Now you’re making the step back. I totally get it. It’s a huge financial offer. It is also connected to many other elements. This league is getting better and stronger every year. We are all very proud of that. I want everybody to grow in this environment. The reality is — for both players — making that step means you are not in the same competitive environment as you were before. It’s not easy for Michael. And it’s not going to be easy in the future."
The sum of these points — MLS is improving, but it is not the best option for the best American players — finally triggered Garber into an emotional response during a conference call on Wednesday. He labeled the remarks "personally infuriating" and railed against Klinsmann for his lack of support for Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan and his lack of adherence to the perceived common goals.
"Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league," Garber told reporters on the call. "They’re detrimental to the sport of soccer in America and everything we’re trying to do north of the border (in Canada). And not only are they detrimental, I think that they are wrong."
Garber — as any good advocate and leader should and as Klinsmann himself did with his own comments — protected his league and its interests. He strayed into areas well outside his domain — Klinsmann’s ability to criticize his own players for their choices, the decision to leave Donovan off his World Cup roster and the willingness to speak frankly about the terrain ahead for MLS — to reinforce those points and underscore his displeasure with the public sniping.
"I want Jurgen to embrace the vision, and I believe we all need to sit down and talk about his alignment with that vision," Garber said.
They should start by discussing how their interests do not align neatly even though they need each other desperately. Klinsmann is charged with building the most competitive national program he can and delivering greater success at the World Cup in Russia four years from now. Garber is expected to continue the growth of the league on and off the field and reap the corresponding benefits on and off the field for the investor/operators.
Their shared goal — a wildly successful national team capable of driving interest in the domestic league and reaching the pinnacle of World Cup success — masks the somewhat divergent paths necessary to reach it. Klinsmann expects his players to strive for the highest level possible and thinks he needs more of them plying their trades in more rigorous circumstances to get there. Garber and MLS want to foster further improvement and transform into one of the world’s best competitions by tempting more national team players home and strengthening the talent pool from within. There is an inherent and natural tension between the two approaches. What is best for one party simply might not represent the interests of the other in certain cases.
It is a situation designed to create sparks as disagreements emerge. The give and take is a bit unseemly on the surface, but it is vital for the development of both the league and the national team. Both parties must continue to protect their interests doggedly as they pursue their objectives. The resulting cut-and-thrust ultimately holds everyone involved accountable and lays the foundation required to ensure the momentary pain and strife leads to long-term success.