What have we learned in the six months Juergen Klinsmann has coached the U.S. Mens National Team?
It’s not a virtue that comes easy to Americans. We’re the land of two-minute rice and instant pudding. A country that thrives on the promises of instant winners and quick fixes. To us the notion of waiting your turn is as foreign as patientia est virtus.
And yet we now have a foreigner telling us “Hold on. Not so fast.” What sort of un-American activity is that? If all goes as planned, it’s the sort that will bring improvement and international prominence to the U.S. soccer program.
Klinsmann’s tenure marks the end of a 16 year period in which the national team was led by an American coach. Using appearances in the World Cup as a barometer of success, the results weren’t abysmal but neither were they particularly noteworthy. Since ’98, when the team finished last under Steve Sampson, the Yanks have made it to the quarterfinals only once while dying in the group stage twice and Round of 16 once.
But using a different metric—some might call it an abstract one—the team has languished in the shadow of mediocrity. The team just has never been that good.
To be specific, it’s the U.S style of play that has been lacking. For nearly two decades, if not longer, the U.S. squad has been characterized as a scrappy bunch with a never-quit attitude (well, OK, there was ’98 but let’s leave that wound alone for now). Grit and determination are what pushed them forward. Rarely were the words skilled, talented or exceptional used as adjectives for the red, white and blue.
Of course there were individuals who could play the game with sweetness and precision, but on the whole Team USA was like the good looking executive who willed his way into the corner office rather than earning it with his ability to do a superior job. While they were not an afterthought, elite technical skills just weren’t in the U.S. repertoire.
U.S. coaches and their supporters argued the American futbol player is different than his global counterpart: There’s something about their mentality that only another American could understand and relate to as coach.
True. Americans aren’t born to eat, breathe and live the game. But where coaches like Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena seemed resigned to live with that truism and work within its confines, Klinsmann—short of going on a nationwide impregnating tour– is intent on changing it.
The former German national team player and coach brings not only his success but his perspective to U.S. Soccer. Since taking over last summer Klinsmann has observed time and again that we are not a soccer culture. Our kids grow up with dreams of NFL and NBA stardom, spurred on by vociferous Pop Warner dads married to soccer moms who believe playing soccer is a good way for the kids to spend an afternoon, not make a living. It’s a way of thinking and living that’s as American as Apple Pie.
Klinsmann’s long term goal is to change that approach. He has to alter the way players and fans think about futbol and do so in a culture that wants everything done now. But as anyone else in the rest of the world might tell you, revolution and change don’t happen overnight.
That’s why the last six months seemed to have painfully dragged on. Outwardly, little appears to have changed with U.S. soccer. Despite their recent victories against Panama and Venezuela, their games have been characterized by long bouts of mediocrity peppered with moments of ineptitude or promise.
But just below the surface there are near intangible differences; subtle changes that over time should make a positive impact on the way soccer is played at the highest level in this country. On the whole, passes seem crisper and directed with more purpose. Klinssman has counseled his players—whether they be on the A, B, or C squad—to develop the ability to see not just where the game is, but where it will go. Developing that sixth sense, he has said, requires their immersion in the game throughout the year. They must eat, live and breathe futbol 24/7 and that’s why he has urged players in the domestic league to train overseas during the offseason. That notion—working harder with no guarantee of an immediate payoff— is but one example of how he is working to change the approach to the game.
Dynasties are not built in months or even years. The futbol dominance of Brazil, Italy, Germany or Argentina, for example, emerge as a result of those countries doing what seems to come naturally to them. The reality, however, is that those programs work hard at developing and sustaining those skills. But when you love, live and breathe what you do, it can hardly be thought of as work so much as passion.
That passion for the game hasn’t landed stateside yet. But Klinsmann is working on it. He’s nurturing it in his players, from the ones who are on the senior squad all the way down to the youths strapping on their first set of boots. It’s just going to take time. And patience.