The news that Jürgen Klinsmann will replace Bob Bradley as head coach of the US men’s national soccer team is exciting, if not surprising. American fans will anticipate a US side that is as much fun to watch as Klinsi’s great 2006 German World Cup semifinalist team was. They will likely forget his unfortunate stint coaching Bayern München – where he was fired before the end of his first disastrous season and after which German fans were happy to send him back to his chosen home in California. I think this optimistic attitude is the right one to take. Klinsi is a national coach, not a club coach. He needs time and space to realize his vision. And he is motivated to regain his international reputation. If he can find the right players (a big if, indeed), I'm banking on a successful run in the next few years.
Klinsmann has never been especially noted as a tactician. He left those duties on his celebrated 2006 German national team to his assistant Joachim Löw, who has since taken over as head coach without missing a beat in terms of on-field strategy. Klinsi’s more of a “big picture guy” who brings a philosophy (and occasionally a few Buddha statues) to his teams’ locker rooms. And there are two fundamental prongs to his Soccer Philosophy: (1) an open style of play that generates scoring opportunities and (2) a preference for playing talented youth rather than recognized veteran stars.
The open style of play was undeniably successful for his German national team. It was successful because it balanced the traditional German emphasis on tight, team-oriented defense with an openness that looked to score goals. When he was hired as German coach, traditionalists feared that he would Americanize German soccer. Which he did to an extent. And it worked. But the US tradition hardly needs to be reformed to be more goal-oriented and more aggressive. Instead, I hope that he employs the same basic principle he did when he reformed the German team: work against our traditional strengths by tightening up the defense and patiently waiting for scoring opportunities. Let’s not forget that the two reigning world champions (Spain and Japan) play somewhat like an old-school German side – possession, defense, and making penalty kicks.
But I’m more interested in the second prong of Klinsi’s approach to soccer: the youth movement. German youth soccer has long been a model of success, and he capitalized on that. America, once again, is different. And that key difference lies in our university system. Klinsmann recognized this in an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl before last year’s World Cup. At one point in the interview, he is critical of this system:
Soccer in a certain way transmits the culture of a country. It reflects so much about the people….It's going to be very interesting to see where U.S. soccer from an identity point of view will head to. It will be a mixture. You have the Latin influence. You have the cultural backbone of your university system, which is completely different from the rest of the world. You have the fact that it's mostly organized soccer, when we know that the best players in the world come out of unorganized events. I think it's a fascinating topic. It will be defined in the years down the road.
Note the use of “you” and “we” here. The American system is unique—and the implication is that it needs to be brought into line with more successful soccer systems.
Later in the interview, however, he reflects on his attendance at a seminar offered by Duke University’s legendary men’s basketball coach, Mike Krzyzsewski:
It was really impressive. We don't have those types of seminars in Germany. Not at that level, because our university system doesn't have the recognition it has in the United States, and it certainly doesn't have the connection to sports. The American system is completely different. You need to understand America and how it works in order to get that picture, and I have been lucky to live here 11 years and see a lot of places. Coach K is really good stuff for any coach in whatever sport he's in.
Few other coaches—and surely none at his level of success—are as inseparable from university-level athletics as Kzyzschewski, who has never abandoned the NCAA for the NBA, despite numerous offers. And here Klinsi (although still employing a “you” and “us” distinction) suggests that perhaps the university system is the key to understanding “America and how it works” and that his 11 years as a US resident has helped him to understand this. When he took over Bayern München in 2008 (sorry to bring that up again), he proclaimed: "'We are ourselves' - that's the philosophy." Now that Klinsi's "we" is the USMNT, that means making the unique institution of the American university athletics system the key to defining American soccer. Surely Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation and member of the Economics faculty at Columbia University, would agree with this. His desire to have Klinsmann as his coach has long been anything but a secret.
At his press conference on Monday, Klinsi will certainly talk about how he wants to mold a recognizably American style of soccer. And, as anyone who has followed his career knows already, this style will involve open play and new (and younger) players being given prominent roles. But I would also wager that the Klinsi-Era in American soccer will be marked by an attempt at a total restructuring of soccer at all levels. My sense is that university athletics will play a central role in this. Let’s hope (and it pains me as a UK Wildcats and UC Bearcats fan to say this) that he took good notes at Coach K’s seminar.
- Speaking of finding talented youth that can play Klinsi’s style of soccer in unexpected places, are Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe eligible to join the men’s side?
- Klinsi might actually be a better fit with the USWNT. And I’d like to see what Pia Sundhage could do with the USMNT.
- Crossing borders in international soccer is neither new nor rare. But still I like the fact that the US national teams’ coaches were born in Germany and Sweden, and that the president of the USSF was born in India.
- Can I order my tickets for the 2014 US-Germany semifinal match (or dare I dream of a final?!) now?