Klinsmann looks to boost US football toward powers
Jurgen Klinsmann has plenty of advice on how to American
football can catch up with the world powers.
Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard should join Champions League clubs.
American players need to get ”nastier.” They need more training
sessions and less vacation time, better nutrition and less respect
A World Cup and European champion as a player, and a coach who
led his native Germany to a third-place finish in football’s
showcase tournament, Klinsmann took charge of the U.S. team with a
resume to back up his pronouncements.
”Because we are not a soccer nation yet, per se, there is a
kind of a lack of urgency,” he said in a meeting room of a
Washington hotel this week, a few hours before the United States
was blown out 4-1 by five-time world champion Brazil.
”This is maybe something where I sometimes kind of step in and
actually step people on their toes and say, `You know what? It’s
about today and tomorrow.”’
American football has come a long way from its many lost
decades. After famously upsetting England 1-0 at the 1950 World
Cup, the Americans didn’t qualify again until 1990.
Now they’ve made it to the last six World Cups, one of only
seven nations to accomplish the feat. They’ve gotten better in fits
and starts under Bob Gansler, Bora Milutinovic, Steve Sampson,
Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002 and
the second round in 1994 and 2010.
But the gap between America and the traditional powers remains
huge. When the U.S. wasted a two-goal lead and lost to Mexico 4-2
in the final of last years’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, it was clear the
Americans no longer were even the top team in their own region.
And the distance to football’s highest level is now apparent to
a U.S. public that is tuning in to Premier League matches every
weekend and Champions League games on midweek afternoons.
So five years after a failed courtship, the U.S. Soccer
Federation finally reached an agreement with Klinsmann, who had
mostly lived in Orange County, California with his American wife
Debbie since retiring as a player in 1998.
He revamped the federation’s youth coaches, started two- and
three-a-day training sessions when he had players in camp. He
implemented a more open playing style, called for his players to
press defensively like Barcelona, the most-admired club in the
Initial results were disappointing, one win, four draws and a
loss. But then the U.S. won five in a row, including its first-ever
victory over four-time world champion Italy in Italy.
Next weekend the games start for real. Following Sunday night’s
friendly at Canada, the Americans open qualifying for the 2014
World Cup at home against Antigua and Barbuda on June 8 in Tampa,
Florida. They then play at Guatemala four days later.
”There aren’t specific benchmarks or specific markers on this
is what you wanted to do by April and July,” USSF President Sunil
Gulati said. ”What you want to do is qualify for the World Cup and
make sure we do well there, and everything else is part of that
Now 47, Klinsmann seems to wear a perpetual smile. His blond
hair is cropped shorter than it was during his playing days, but
during training he occasionally sends a rocket toward goal that
reminds onlookers of the talent that scored 47 goals in 108 games
for Germany from 1987-98, including 11 at the World Cup.
The U.S., especially under Bradley, was a team that proceeded
upfield with caution against top opponents, always mindful of
protecting its back. Klinsmann is trying to get the Americans to
play more the way he did.
”Every coach has a different style. Every coach has a different
way of doing things, of approaching the game. And I think we’re
finally learning and understanding what he wants us to do,”
midfielder Landon Donovan said. ”I think Jurgen wants us to be
daring and aggressive and do the things we’re good at. We’ve always
been a team that is very good defensively. We always worked hard.
Our energy and our spirit is good, and we’re trying to get better
at the things we haven’t been good at.”
Players said they respected Bradley but didn’t interact with him
that much on a personal level. When the U.S. defeated Honduras last
October for their first win under Klinsmann, the coach walked over
to an iPad in the locker room and turned up some music.
Still, he doesn’t get that close. He’s more willing than Bradley
to publicly detail players’ on-field mistakes. When players are
bypassed for squads, he’ll say what they need to do to improve.
”You’re not there to make friends. You are there to build
something very strong and hopefully people will like to see them
two years down the road,” Klinsmann explained. ”Now I think
that’s important for the players to see, that you’re not there to
please them. I am there to make them better. That’s a very, very
different thing. So that means that sometimes maybe I have to be
uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to be more strict. Sometimes I have
to be, yeah, just, just not the nice guy.”
Klinsmann’s ideas angered the management at Bayern Munich, which
fired him in April 2009, even before his first season ended. He
brought in American fitness trainers, non-German assistants and
made Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel Bayern’s first non-German
captain. He brought in Donovan on loan from the Los Angeles
With the U.S., Klinsmann is pushing his players to work harder
than ever to gain more prominent roles with their clubs. He’s said
that he’ll only select those seeing regular playing time at the
Among Americans, only DaMarcus Beasley has reached the Champions
League semifinals, starting in the first leg for PSV Eindhoven
against AC Milan in 2005. Dempsey is the only American to appear in
a European final, for Fulham in its 2010 Europa League loss to