U.S. Soccer’s arrested development


The U.S. Men’s National Team that Jurgen Klinsmann leads on to the field for the opening match of the Copa America Centenario Friday night in Santa Clara will feature plenty of familiar faces.

Too many, in fact, because this veteran team is not the squad Klinsmann expected to be fielding just two years before the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This tournament was supposed to be a coming out party for a new generation of national team stars, a chance to begin turning the page from the era of 33-year-old forward Clint Dempsey, 34-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones and 37-year-old goalkeeper Tim Howard.

If players of that vintage are starting for the U.S. in Russia in two years, the problems for U.S. Soccer are far more troublesome than any opponent. Yet Klinsmann, who is also U.S. Soccer’s technical director, said he was left with little choice but to rely on trusted veterans. In his view, many players touted as the core of U.S. Soccer’s next generation have stagnated and have not proven they are ready for the crucible of a major international tournament or the responsibility of making sure the home team doesn’t get embarrassed.

“We hoped that a lot of them would be a lot stronger,” Klinsmann said of the younger generation during a recent interview at the team’s pre-tournament camp in Florida. “We have too many of our talents sitting on benches. They are sitting on benches in Mexico, in European leagues, on MLS teams.”

How a country of more than 300 million still struggles to produce players capable of earning a spot on the world’s top club teams is the puzzle that Klinsmann hoped he might have begun to solve by the time the U.S. welcomed several of the sport’s biggest stars and top national teams for a special, 100th anniversary edition of South America’s continental championship. The tournament includes the 10 South American teams and the six best teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Lionel Messi and top-ranked Argentina are here. So is James Rodríguez and third-ranked Colombia, which plays the U.S. in the opening match Friday.
The tournament almost didn’t happen. Officials in nearly every national soccer association in South America were implicated in the alleged bribery conspiracies that have resulted in more than 40 indictments of soccer officials and executives, including the leaders of the North and South American continental confederations, and the downfall of former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

For months, the international soccer business in the Americas ground to a halt. Then, partly because the national associations in South America desperately needed the money, the Copa America was resuscitated. That meant Klinsmann needed to figure out quickly how this event could best serve the U.S. team in its final push towards Russia and beyond.

Yet with his up-and-comers not developing as he wanted, Klinsmann is sprinkling in a few relative newcomers, like 17-year-old Christian Pulisic and 23-year-old Bobby Wood, alongside the likes of 34-year-old Kyle Beckerman and 30-year-old Geoff Cameron.

“It’s the fascinating process of sports,” Klinsmann said. “When are the younger ones stealing the spots from the older ones. When does the chemistry of the team shift to new leadership within the group? Who takes over within the locker room? Who drives that energy?”

Paul Breitner, a World Cup winner with West Germany in 1974 and one of Klinsmann’s heroes growing up, questioned the logic of sticking with an aging group, insisting the only way to figure out whether young players are ready is to let them play. “Try it and you will see if it is the right decision or not,” Breitner said.

In soccer, transitions like this one rarely turn out well. Most national team coaches don’t stick around for two World Cup cycles, and those who do often regret it. Bruce Arena followed up a quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup with a winless campaign in 2006. Vincente del Bosque led Spain to its first championship in 2010 then failed to get out of the group stage four years later.

Klinsmann desperately wants his team to finish in the top four at the Copa and turn the page on a disappointing past year. An ugly loss in Guatemala in March put the team on the precipice of elimination from World Cup qualifying. More than results though, nearly five years into his tenure, Klinsmann is obsessed with battling what he sees as the cultural impediments to the U.S. producing good soccer players.

Four years ago he ridiculed national team players who allowed themselves to be celebrated for losing in the World Cup round of 16 in 2010. He tore into Dempsey for being puffed up after he became a top scorer in the Premier League because he did it for a mediocre club, Fulham.

Now his targets are the talented 18-to-23-year-olds in the U.S. program who fizzle out or suffer debilitating non-contact injuries that could be a result of insufficient strength training. He complains that the players inthe younger generationare too steeped in the rhythms and habits of baseball, basketball and football, which encourage them always to look off the field for guidance instead of taking responsibility for their own actions.

To encourage independence, Klinsmann has given little in the way of specific instruction to younger players battling for a spot on the national team. When Darlington Nagbe, a 25-year-old midfielder, showed up for his first national team camp, Klinsmann told him only to get comfortable with the group and express himself on the field.

Steve Birnbaum, a 25-year-old defender, said he and Klinsmann barely talked at a recent January camp. “He wasn’t expressive,” Birnbaum said. “We discussed having my personality show throughout the camp and the games.”

Klinsmann explains that this is by design. Since the clock never stops, soccer players have to get comfortable with taking control of the game instead of relying on a coach for input. “I can have a timeout in basketball and I can have a different play,” Klinsmann said. “I can tell them all the time when there is a commercial break, ‘O.K., next strategy.’ Soccer is an inner-driven sport and this is one of the of the biggest challenges.”

The same dynamic needs to emerge among the younger players off the field as well, he said. He has watched the U.S. under-17 team outplay sides from Brazil and England in recent years, but most of those players have made little impact professionally. While the talent is there, he said other ingredients might be missing—toughness, nastiness, the drive to take on the best competition, the creativity to thrive in a sport where decisions have to happen on the fly.

Last month in an intra-squad scrimmage during camp, he stopped the action and scolded 20-year-old Matt Miazga, a 6-foot-4 inch defender who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League. Miazga was playing several yards away from an opposing striker, instead of getting close and using his size to intimidate his opponent. Miazga didn’t make the roster for the Copa America.

Jordan Morris, the promising 21-year-old striker, also didn’t make the squad. Earlier this year, Morris chose to sign with the Seattle Sounders instead of the German club Werder Bremen, where he would have had to battle for respect and playing time the way Klinsmann wants American players to do.

In Morris’s place, fans will likely see plenty of Wood, the Hawaiian forward who has spent the past five years toiling in the lower rungs in German soccer. His 17 goals in 31 games this past season earned him a transfer to Hamburg in Germany’s top division.

“He fought his way through,” Klinsmann said of Wood. “He became a young adult.”

Now, Klinsmann just needs a few more of those by 2018.

Wall Street Journal.

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