Klinsmann says MLS is 'not competitive'
Jurgen Klinsmann stood on the field and talked into a hand-held microphone, welcoming several hundred fans who sat in the first deck of Red Bull Arena.
After more than a decade of secrecy under Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, the new U.S. coach opened a national team training session to the general public Monday, a day ahead of an exhibition game against Ecuador.
Klinsmann had already made big changes since replacing Bradley on July 29, and more are ahead. For instance, he wants to eliminate the two-to-three months off that Major League Soccer players get each year.
''The big challenge is for MLS overall, how can they stretch that season into a format that is kind of competitive with the rest of the world?'' he said. ''Right now it's not competitive. If you have a seven-, eight-month season, that's not competitive with the rest of the world.''
MLS teams start training in January and their seasons last until mid-October or late November, depending on playoff success. European clubs begin practice in July and play through late May. The World Cup and European Championship fill June every other year.
Klinsmann spent 17 years in major European leagues and won world and European titles with Germany. That's made it easier for American players to respond when he has them go through two-a-day workouts when they arrive from their clubs.
''I think the guys are coming into it with an open mind, saying, look, he's done it. He's won World Cups. He's played for the biggest clubs in the world,'' American captain Carlos Bocanegra said, sweat dripping from his face after practice. ''There's no ifs, ands or buts about it. He's done it, and he's talking about it. If Phil Jackson talks to you about winning championships, how he coaches, he's done it.''
In many respects, Klinsmann is far more one of the guys than Bradley. DaMarcus Beasley said that after Saturday's 1-0 victory over Honduras, the first win in four matches under Klinsmann, the coach walked over to an iPad in the locker room and turned up some music.
''He's come in and he's felt he's needed to change the landscape,'' goalkeeper Tim Howard said. ''He's a very upbeat kind of guy, really positive. He's given us so much encouragement to say, look, you make mistakes. But play. Keep going. He believes, and we're beginning to believe, that the upside of controlling the tempo starting in the back will be a positive for us going forward.''
The U.S. had tentative starts much of the time under Bradley, falling behind England and Slovenia before rallying for ties at last year's World Cup, then needing an injury-time goal against Algeria to advance before losing to Ghana in the knockout stage. Bradley was dismissed after the U.S. wasted a two-goal lead to Mexico in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, losing 4-2, and has since signed on as coach of Egypt.
Having lived in California for the past 13 years with his American wife and their kids, Klinsmann has perhaps unrivaled perspective on what changes American soccer must make to close the gap with the world's powers.
''If there's a national team player, he has to do extra work,'' Klinsmann said. ''He has to do extra weeks, and he can't go on vacation even if he says, `Well, but I'm supposed now to have six weeks off.' If he comes and says that, then I give him a hug and say, `Have fun the six weeks, but don't come back here.'''
Klinsmann had spent five years as coach in waiting, negotiating with U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati in 2006 and 2010 before breaking off talks each time.
He wears a top to training with his initials ''JK'' in the European coaching style. He has gotten rid of specific numbers on each players' uniform, preferring the old system where the starters were assigned Nos. 1-11 based on position, so as to encourage competition.
''It's a pretty good system. It's the way in works in Europe, like nothing is yours forever,'' Howard said. ''I don't think some of the younger guys quite get it. That's OK. It's more my family, trying to explain to them what the numbers are.''
Klinsmann has jettisoned Bradley's assistants and fitness coach Pierre Barrieu, bringing in former English national team goalkeeper Chris Woods, former Chivas USA coach Martin Vazquez and Javier Perez, a development coach at Real Madrid. He also has hired Phoenix-based Athletes Performance, a company he worked with during his time with Germany's national team (1994-96) and Bayern Munich (2008-09).
On the field, he has moved Clint Dempsey from wide midfield to withdrawn forward, and he's given the outside backs more freedom to roam forward - on the condition one of them stays back while the other moves upfield.
''The biggest thing is how quickly can you get behind the ball when it turns over,'' Bocanegra said. ''He's been staying on Jozy (Altidore) really hard, and Jozy's been responding well.''
While the U.S. and Mexico have dominated the region for two decades, the Americans have played with an inferiority complex. Klinsmann is here to change that. And to talk about it. For nearly an hour after practice, he was on the field still speaking with reporters, something Bradley would never do.
''We've been a defend-and counterattack team,'' said Howard, standing a few feet away. ''I think he's trying to get us to dictate games and control games. Be more in control. And the way you go that is by passing and opening teams up and having confidence.''