Jurgen Klinsmann is managing U.S. Soccer like a second-term president. Now past one World Cup cycle that saw him receive a contract extension through the 2018 tournament before his team even landed in Brazil this summer, the American soccer governing body handed over as much power as it possibly could to its current head of state.
It seems—and frankly, who can blame him—the power has gone to his head. There is no person in international sports with more job security than Klinsmann, and his recent comments illustrate just how much he cares about his legacy in the annals of U.S. Soccer above anything else, including his current constituents.
It's not even that Klinsmann is wrong with his recent comments; it's more the sheer audacity of their timing.
[Update: Klinsmann's comments about the MLS harming certain U.S. players' progress inspired a heated response from MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who said in a conference call Wednesday, "For him to publicly state issues that he has with Major League Soccer, in my view, is not something that is going to allow him to effectively serve the role of not just coach, but as technical director.")
Here is what Klinsmann said about Landon Donovan, which would have made a ton of sense had the comments been made in, say, July, when Donovan was left off the U.S. squad bound for Brazil: "As a coach, you always want to see a player drive for his 100 percent. I'm looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there."
Rather, Klinsmann made those comments to MLSSoccer.com in the buildup to Donovan's testimonial match, scheduled in part to celebrate the American legend's retirement, an event Klinsmann clearly wanted nothing to do with despite naming Donovan captain for the night. The youth-laden lineup tied Ecuador 1-1 in Donovan's final match with U.S. Soccer, just days before a more veteran lineup drew against Honduras 1-1 on Tuesday night after an early goal by Jozy Altidore was equalized in the match's waning minutes.
Klinsmann lauded Donovan's impact on American soccer and MLS, saying he "deserves all the admiration and recognition for this amazing career," before reiterating that he thinks Donovan could have been more, given more. "You always wish for that extra piece that you see in somebody. I think [Donovan] had that opportunity, and if he's fine with it, that’s OK. I think he could have gone even further."
Klinsmann didn't even show up to Donovan's press event with head of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati. That, or he wasn't invited. (Note: Given the day was about Donovan, it was almost certainly the latter, but in that decision—be it Klinsmann's, Donovan's or Gulati's—the omission was striking, to say the least.)
The old U.S. Soccer way is a thing of the past, and anyone who thinks the old way of Donovan's era is the way Klinsmann plans to handle "cycle two" of his U.S. Soccer reign is welcome to join the old No. 10 on a beach somewhere—far away from Klinsmann's next camp.
Again, he's probably right, but the timing of Klinsmann's comments only serve to make the story more about him and less about whatever, and whomever, came before him. And if you agree that Klinsmann's comments regarding Donovan were ill-timed, take a look at what Klinsmann said about Michael Bradley coming back to MLS, via Goal.com:
He had to adjust to the environment he's in with Toronto instead maybe an environment that plays Champions League football. He's going through that experience now and still coming in. For the first time since the World Cup, he has to prove that he hasn't lost a bit. Obviously, he'll keep working and pushing, but it's down to him and his environment to see what he's capable to play in.
Yes, if you read between the lines—or just read the actual lines—that's the head of U.S. Soccer talking about how disappointed he is that one of his stars, and perhaps the reigning face of American soccer now that Donovan is gone and Tim Howard is on sabbatical, is playing professionally in America. (Well, Canada.) MLS is clearly not a big part of Klinsmann's future plans with the U.S. national team and, with that, perhaps even the current crop of American stars who play in MLS.
Those comments would have made a lot more sense—if perhaps less impact—had they not come the day before installing Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi and Matt Besler back into his U.S. lineup for the match against Honduras.
Klinsmann is trying to create a disconnect between U.S. Soccer and MLS, despite loading his roster at both the World Cup and in Tuesday's friendly with talent from the American domestic league. In 2018, Klinsmann clearly expects to be looking elsewhere. And yet, with that clear message in mind, Klinsmann sent another, more mixed message in his comments about MLS player Jermaine Jones.
Klinsmann seems to be going to great lengths to prolong the international career of Jones by moving him to center back in an experiment he hopes pans out for the United States. Jones—who started the match against Honduras at center back and, despite playing well for much of the match, did pick up one of three cautions for the USMNT and was marking the Honduran goal-scorer in the 86th minute, is playing where now? Oh, right. MLS.
"We wouldn't do it if there wasn't a long-term thought to it," said Klinsmann via Franco Panizo of SoccerbyIves. "... Obviously, it takes a little bit of time. It takes some good understanding with the other center back, with the outside back, but Jermaine played there before. He played there a couple of times at Schalke. He played there a couple of times at Besiktas, actually, as well.
"I was not worried at all about that, but also it's a thought seeing as he is 32," Klinsmann continued. "Is he now the box-to-box player for the next four years, on turf fields? I don't know. I doubt it a little bit. That might be a better role over a longer stretch of time, so it was good for us to test that out."
Another rip on MLS there from Klinsmann, commenting on the artificial surfaces Jones will have to play on. There are currently just four artificial fields in MLS, including Foxborough, Massachusetts, where the New England Revolution—the team for which Jones was placed amidst a modicum of controversy in MLS—play.
This could be a huge issue moving forward as Klinsmann makes the U.S. roster more and more in his image, which makes it decidedly less and less (traditionally) American.
It's impossible for U.S. Soccer to thrive independent of MLS, and certainly vice versa. Their business interests—namely the new mega-television contract signed last year—will inexorably link the two soccer bodies for a very long time.
The issue for Klinsmann is not about the current television deal, or whatever business agreements Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber have conspired to make. For Klinsmann, this is more about the future, both in terms of his 2018 World Cup cycle, and his legacy beyond that. He is trying to reprogram a system that has gotten U.S. Soccer about as far as it can go, and he sees that if the best American players ever produced—outside of the net, that is—are the likes of Donovan, Dempsey and Bradley, then MLS is a comparative failure in terms of international excellence.
Klinsmann would obviously rather his version of American soccer come from the place he made his name: Europe. And by Europe, we obviously mean Germany.
Julian Green, who was on the World Cup roster despite little experience and was supposed to star in this recent camp before returning with an injury, is playing in Germany. Timmy Chandler, who seemed the next in line on defense for the United States, plays in Germany. Fabian Johnson, a burgeoning star for the Americans, plies his trade in Germany too.
Bobby Wood, Alfredo Morales and Joe Gyau, all on the most recent U.S. roster before Gyau's injury, play in Germany. John Anthony Brooks, who also received a spot on the World Cup roster with little experience internationally, plays in Germany.
Jermaine Jones? Yeah, before coming to MLS, he played in Germany too.
Klinsmann talks about the importance of European football, evidenced by his newfound faith in Mix Diskerud, who is currently playing in Norway, and Alejandro Bedoya, who now plays for Nantes in France. But that European dream Klinsmann talks about the most is Champions League football, and there aren't too many American players doing that right now, especially with Bradley and Jones in MLS.
So it's not that Klinsmann is in any way wrong. His comments make a lot of sense in the greater global world of international competition. We've seen the best American soccer can offer, and while some of the next crop of young Americans are playing in the United States (or Mexico), it would be beneficial to see more players make a name for themselves in Europe.
It's just the timing of it all that makes it clear this is more about Klinsmann securing his legacy than building an "American" soccer program. Suggesting that Jozy Altidore slog through another campaign in England over returning to America to potentially star in MLS doesn't play like it's in the striker's best interest. Via Goal.com:
I made it clear with Clint's move back and (Bradley's) move back that it's going to be very difficult for them to keep that same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It's just reality. It's just being honest.
I want (Altidore) to get through the difficult time at Sunderland and maybe make a big step one day to a Champions League team in Europe because that's where the top players in the world play.
That's not where the top Americans in the world play, though. At least not right now. And if Klinsmann can't change where his American stars play—with the financial windfall given to Americans returning to MLS in a growing but still middle-of-the-pack league internationally—then he might just go ahead and change who his American stars are.
[Garber told reporters, regarding Klinsmann's comments: "I feel very strongly...that Jurgen's comments are very, very detrimental to the league. They're detrimental to the sport of soccer in America...and not only are they detrimental; I think that they're wrong."]
In his pregame press conference before the October 10 testimonial match, Donovan was asked if he ever thinks about who the "next" Donovan will be. Who will be the next face of American soccer? While the retiring star passed on naming any names, he suggested that Gulati, seated beside him at the time, was charged with finding who's next.
More specifically, though, it's Klinsmann, making the face of American soccer less American than ever before. That might be exactly what American soccer needs, truly, and Klinsmann is banking on exactly that in his second cycle in office.
Klinsmann is smart enough to know that if U.S. Soccer becomes a world power, he'll get as much credit as he deserves. We can see what he's trying to build. He doesn't have to keep reminding us what, and who, this is really about.