Jurgen Klinsmann is not shy on giving opinions.
Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard should join Champions League clubs. American players need to get “nastier.” They need more training sessions and less vacation time, better nutrition and less respect for opponents.
Klinsmann is in this country on a mission, to help American soccer catch up with the world powers. A World Cup and European champion as a player and a coach who led his native Germany to a third-place finish in soccer’s showcase tournament, he took charge of the U.S. team with a résumé to back up his pronouncements.
None of this “sport of the future” stuff for him.
“Because we are not a soccer nation yet, per se, there is a kind of a lack of urgency,” the American coach said in a meeting room of a hip Washington hotel this week, a few hours before the United States was blown out 4-1 by five-time world champion Brazil. “This is maybe something where I sometimes kind of step in and actually step people on their toes and say, ‘You know what? It’s about today and tomorrow.’”
American soccer has come a long way from its many lost decades. After famously upsetting England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, the Americans didn’t qualify again until 1990.
Now they’ve made it to the last six World Cups, one of only seven nations to accomplish the feat. They’ve gotten better in fits and starts under Bob Gansler, Bora Milutinovic, Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002 and the second round in 1994 and 2010.
But the gap between America and the traditional powers remains huge. When the U.S. wasted a two-goal lead and lost to Mexico 4-2 in the final of last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, it was clear the Americans no longer were even the top team in their own region. And the distance to soccer’s highest level now is apparent to a U.S. public that is tuning in to Premier League matches every weekend and Champions League games on midweek afternoons.
So five years after a failed courtship, the U.S. Soccer Federation finally reached an agreement with Klinsmann, who mostly had lived in Orange County, Calif., with his American wife Debbie since retiring as a player in 1998.
He revamped the federation’s youth coaches, started two- and three-a-day training sessions when he had players in camp. He implemented a more wide-open playing style and called for his players to press defensively like Barcelona, the most-admired club in the world.
Initial results were disappointing, a 1-4-1 start. But then the U.S. won five in a row, including its first-ever victory over four-time world champion Italy. In Italy, no less!
But next weekend the games start for real. Following Sunday night’s exhibition at Canada, the Americans open qualifying for the 2014 World Cup at home against Antigua and Barbuda on June 8 in Tampa, Fla. They then play at Guatemala four days later.
“There aren’t specific benchmarks or specific markers on this is what you wanted to do by April and July,” USSF President Sunil Gulati said. “What you want to do is qualify for the World Cup and make sure we do well there, and everything else is part of that mission.”
Now 47, Klinsmann seems to wear a perpetual smile. His blond hair is cropped shorter than it was during his playing days, but during training he occasionally sends a rocket toward goal that reminds onlookers of the talent that scored 47 goals in 108 games for Germany from 1987-98, including 11 at the World Cup.
The U.S., especially under Bradley, was a team that proceeded upfield with caution against top opponents, always mindful of protecting its back. Klinsmann is trying to get the Americans to play more the way he did.
“Every coach has a different style. Every coach has a different way of doing things, of approaching the game. And I think we’re finally learning and understanding what he wants us to do,” star midfielder Landon Donovan said. “I think Jurgen wants us to be daring and aggressive and do the things we’re good at. We’ve always been a team that is very good defensively. We always worked hard. Our energy and our spirit is good, and we’re trying to get better at the things we haven’t been good at.”
Players said they respected Bradley but didn’t interact with him that much on a personal level. When the U.S. defeated Honduras last October for their first win under Klinsmann, the coach walked over to an iPad in the locker room and turned up some music.
Still, he doesn’t get that close. He’s more willing than Bradley to publicly detail players’ on-field mistakes. When players are bypassed for rosters, he’ll say what they need to do to improve.
“You’re not there to make friends. You are there to build something very strong, and hopefully people will like to see them two years down the road,” Klinsmann explained. “Now I think that’s important for the players to see, that you’re not there to please them. I am there to make them better. That’s a very, very different thing. So that means that sometimes maybe I have to be uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to be more strict. Sometimes I have to be, yeah, just, just not the nice guy.”
Klinsmann’s ideas angered the management at Bayern Munich, which fired him in April 2009, even before his first season ended. He brought in American fitness trainers, non-German assistants and made Dutch midfielder Mark van Bommel Bayern’s first non-German captain. He brought in Donovan on loan from the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“Klinsmann’s only idea for strengthening the squad in January was Landon Donovan,” Bayern general manager Uli Hoeness said after Klinsmann’s dismissal.
“Hermann Gerland told me the guy wasn’t fit to play for his reserves,” Hoeness said of Bayern’s second-team coach.
With the U.S., Klinsmann is pushing his players to work harder than ever to gain more prominent roles with their clubs. He’s said that he’ll only select those seeing regular playing time at the club level.
Among Americans, only DaMarcus Beasley has reached the Champions League semifinals, starting in the first leg for PSV Eindhoven against AC Milan in 2005. Dempsey is the only American to appear in a European final, for Fulham in its 2010 Europa League loss to Atletico Madrid.
“They dream about Champions League, and they dream about playing for a big-name club and making a lot of money. It’s all fine. But I’m telling them every time, you’re not doing that by dreaming. You can only do it by working,” Klinsmann said, stretching out the word for emphasis. “So if you think that five, six sessions a week is enough to get there, it’s not. So if you add two sessions a week on your own, it will show a certain improvement.”
He wants their attitude to be, “I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to do more for it. And when the other guys go on vacation, I might do vacation, but I still train at least once a day on my vacation instead of just lying in a hammock.”
No matter how much progress has been made, the gulf is huge.
“The players that are representing the U.S. are not players at Arsenal and Inter and Real Madrid and Barcelona and Chelsea and Manchester United and so on,” Gulati said after the 2010 World Cup team was eliminated by Ghana.
“We’re still not there,” he said this week. “And when Brazil or Spain or Argentina or Germany puts a team on the field, most of those players are playing at Champions League teams.”
Dempsey, whose contract with Fulham has one year left, said he’d like to make the step up to a bigger club. Goalkeeper Tim Howard wants to stay at Everton, where he has been the starter for six seasons.
“I don’t want to move. I’m happy where I am, and what’s around the corner for me is Everton right now until someone tells me different,” he said.
While pushing the players, Klinsmann also has been trying actively to increase soccer’s American visibility. He opens practices to fans. He allows television networks to interview him at halftime of games.
Part of his agenda for soccer in America is to increase “the attention a sport really has in its society.”
“There is no urgency for soccer yet in that way that it is for baseball, football, basketball, it’s kind of just – yeah, it’s going on its own speed,” he said. “So what I’d love to see over the next years is that there’s actually becoming more urgency into this whole soccer world.”