As I’m sure is the case with the rest of you, I’ve spent a fair amount of time today thinking about the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision to hire Jürgen Klinsmann as men’s national team head coach. I’ve been contemplating not just whether Klinsmann can keep the senior national team winning, but also whether he can achieve his goals in American youth player development.
With regards to the senior national team, I think Klinsmann will do just fine. He’ll bring in some new players, which will freshen up the spirit of the team. He’ll almost certainly value creative players such as José Francisco Torres, Kyle Beckerman and Brek Shea more than Bob Bradley did.
I’m not sure how he’ll do against Mexico, including in the upcoming game here in Philadelphia on August 10. El Tri are at their best level that I can ever remember, and Javier Hernandez is a genuine international superstar. Chicharito probably won’t be the last big name to come from south of the Rio Grande either, as Mexico’s Under-17 national team just won the world championship on home soil a few weeks ago.
(I hope you’ll forgive me for continuing to rather loudly make the point that Klinsmann’s first game in charge of the national team is going to be right here, in our city. It really is a big deal.)
On the whole, I think Klinsmann will succeed as a coach. He’ll get the U.S. to the 2014 World Cup, and with the right mix of players he should be able to get them at the very least out of the group stage once again. That’s all fine.
Where I think Klinsmann will struggle, though, is in matters off the field. We know his opinion of how American soccer develops players, and we know it isn’t very high. Surely he has been hired to change that system as much as he has been hired to coach the senior national team.
Will Klinsmann be able to make that big change - and all the accompanying little changes - between now and the 2014 World Cup? It helps that the U.S. Under-20 national team position is open. With the Under-17 championship having just ended, Klinsmann will likely be able to replace that team’s coach, Colombia-born Wilmer Cabrera, as well.
But that still might not be enough. The real roots of player development in the United States lie in the thousands of youth and school teams across the country. I would bet that a lot of you have either played for or coached such a team, or you have a child who has played for such a team. At the very least, you probably have a friend who has been involved with the system.
Think about how many coaches and administrators are involved in that system. Now think about all the fees that players and their parents are charged to participate in it - a point that Klinsmann has very astutely made in the past.
Put that all together and think about the amount of money that people make from the system. A true upheaval, one which redirects talent from youth clubs to MLS-run clubs and the national team, would probably mean that some of those people wouldn’t make as much money as they do now.
Even just changing the emphasis from winning youth games to player skills development would be dramatic. We already hear often about how youth teams recruit (to be polite) players from other youth clubs so that they can keep winning, and so that the coaches of those teams can remain in their position.
Is all of that harsh? Yeah. But think about how many little individual fiefdoms are involved here. I’m not sure anyone can truly change the system in four years, and that’s before we bring up trying to involve the nation’s Hispanic population more in the American soccer system.
Having said all that, there is one question that I would want to ask Klinsmann at his introductory press conference this coming Monday. I can't be there because of other work obligations, so I'm going to ask it here, and maybe someone who actually will be there will ask it too:
What does he think of the Coaching Curriculum that was produced by U.S. Soccer Federation youth technical director Claudio Reyna earlier this year?
Reyna is just the kind of guy that Klinsmann should really like. He was a creative midfielder, one of the best the U.S. has ever produced. His family came to the United States from Argentina to live in northern New Jersey, and instilled in their son a terrific understanding of how to play the sport the right way.
The former U.S. national team No. 10 understands American soccer at every level: the youth game, the college game (he played for Bruce Arena at Virginia), the professional game here and abroad, and the national team system.
With that kind of background and experience, Reyna ought to be able to bring his ideals not just to the suburban white population in America, but the nation’s Hispanic population as well.
(There, I said it.)
Back to Klinsmann. If he has read the Coaching Curriculum document, does he like it? If so, that says something. If he doesn’t like it, that says something too.
And if he hasn’t read the document, I’d say that sends a message as well.
So that's my opinion. Yeah, it’s deep and technical, and not as simple and flashy as asking whether Klinsmann can make the U.S. national team more entertaining.
I don’t object to the Klinsmann hire. As I said above, he's going to bring a new spirit and energy into to the program, and that's a good thing.
Also, anyone who coaches the U.S. national team needs to have an understanding of how American soccer really works. Klinsmann definitely has that. A lot of the other high-profile international names out there don’t.
(I do think Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis would do really well in the job. I understand that he might not be ready for it, but I think he’ll get there by the end of the decade, and maybe even by the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle.)
Whatever you think of U.S. Soccer’s decision, I think we can all agree on one thing. If Klinsmann is going to set his standards high, then we all are within our rights to hold him to them.