If you tried to manufacture the ideal US national team coach, the prototype wouldn’t come any more perfect than Jürgen Klinsmann.
The reasons are obvious: his international experience as a player and coach, his long ties to the USA, his knowledge of the American soccer landscape, the absence of a language barrier and enough of a high profile to earn the US even greater respect in countries that perhaps are still lacking it. Not to mention his ability to relate to three players who could yet prove to be difference makers for the US: Timothy Chandler, David Yelldell and Jermaine Jones. He also brings credibility in the recruitment of other dual-passport holders.
He’ll bring style and energy to the national team and he’ll make it interesting and relevant again. He’s expressive, outspoken and will speak his mind. He’s the anti-Bob Bradley.
More importantly, he’s someone who’s not a member of the establishment and who doesn’t have ties to other US coaches and systems as has been the case for more than a decade in the most influential coaching post in US soccer.
He’ll come in with a fresh set of eyes with regards to the system and to the players. It is a high probability that certain foreign-based American players won’t be among his call-ups merely out of loyalty, tradition or to merely help ensure the locker room has enough coach’s allies.
But even with all of this there is a danger. For the same reason that it took Klinsmann this long to commit to US Soccer after a protracted courtship, there is a distinct impression that it is his way or the highway. And this will invariably lead to personality clashes on and off the field along the way.
And for as outspoken as he is, we really have not gotten to know him or his views in the 13-plus years he has lived in the USA. He’s been detached, almost isolated in Newport Beach, Calif. The truth is that he’s been more of a name to Americans than an actual presence in day-to-day soccer affairs.
Klinsmann will have to learn to be diplomatic and a consensus builder, qualities which are not the first traits that jump out from his résumé. His departure from both the German national team and Bayern Munich both were enveloped in controversy. His coaching record is also a relatively short sample and there is still an undercurrent of doubt whether Joachim Löw is perhaps the one to credit for the German World Cup success in 2006.
He will also have to be open-minded about his own philosophies and how they apply to American soccer. Although he’s well-intentioned, Klinsmann has come across as aloof, elitist and borderline condescending when addressing “how things should work” for the sport in the United States in the past.
The warning sign lies in the Toronto FC experiment, which he has masterminded as a consultant for TFC. The values and merits of importing the Dutch system through Aron Winter are undisputed but idealistic. The manner in which the 4-3-3 has been forced upon MLS has clearly not worked.
There needed to be a transition in Toronto and there needs to a transition with the US national team. It can’t be a shock to the system. It would do more damage than good.
Klinsmann needs to understand that this is a national team and not a club team that needs to play attractive soccer. Results and not sparkle are what matter. He has to accept the grind-it-out nature of CONCACAF and the opposition he’ll face on the road to the World Cup. A string of bad results in CONCACAF and it could mean real trouble. Mexico under Sven-Göran Eriksson is the case study.
That’s why next Monday’s presentation in New York City is already critical. Klinsmann needs to set the tone early with regards to his approach and his long-term plan. He will not be able to change the sport in the USA with a single game or even in one World Cup cycle.
Although US soccer fans want to see fresh ideas, it’s about evolution and not revolution. Klinsmann has to show that he wants to build — not tear down — and it has to be reflected in the selection of his coaching staff. He is merely a caretaker of the USMNT and should look to leave US Soccer in a better state than he is finding it.
And even more importantly, he needs to be clear and upfront as to why he chose to take over now and not months and years before. Both he and US Soccer’s chief have danced around the key issue of “control.” It is time for full disclosure.
The windows have been opened and there will be a gust of fresh air entering in the room. It’s up to Klinsmann whether that draft will be a violent wind that upends everything in the room or the gentle spring breeze variety that brings a smile to your face.