Commentary

Klinsmann: "You can't catch up anymore"

The U.S. men's national soccer team coach shares his vision for the future of American soccer

Updated: December 1, 2011, 11:19 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

Jurgen KlinsmannFinlay MackayKlinsmann warns that it will take time to remake the U.S. national team (just 2-4-1 under his guidance), but the clock is ticking: Qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup begin next June.

This story appears in the Dec. 12, 2011, "Interview Issue" of ESPN The Magazine.

CYPHERS: You first discussed the U.S. job in 2006. Five years later, you finally accepted. Why now?

KLINSMAN: I said in 2010 and 2006 that I will come only if you are open for change­ -- that we will not go upward right away. This is an interesting time, with a new generation of dual-citizenship kids and own-developed kids from MLS coming through the ranks, and a time when quite a lot of Americans are making a name overseas. Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo -- players who have a real presence in a closed soccer world. There's a foundation of experience, and now a generation from the military presence in Europe could be a good start again.

Speaking of dual-citizenship players, there's talk of a German-American revolution on the U.S. team. We've identified five or six players of high quality in Germany who still need guidance to get to the international level, like a Danny Williams [age 22] or a Fabian Johnson [24 on Dec. 11] or a Timothy Chandler [21]. And there's a kid from Berlin, Alfredo Morales [21]. They all went through an academy system of 10 to 12 years with professional clubs. As a person who lived and enjoyed the game all over and ended up in the U.S. because my wife is American, it is a fascinating job because I can connect the pieces.

What can the U.S. learn from the European academy system? The U.S. has a very impatient sports environment. They want an 18-year-old to already be a superstar. The strength of an academy system, whether South American or European, is that they identify a talent and let him grow at his own pace. Certain players have a technical foundation and can read the game, but they can't keep up physically yet. It doesn't mean he gets cut; it means we give him time. We have a couple of forwards from MLS who need time: Teal Bunbury [Sporting Kansas City] is 21, and Juan Agudelo [New York Red Bulls] is 19. I don't want a really big talent like Agudelo getting burned for something that he's not yet. The media would like to do that because they need to sell. Totally understandable. But if you're honest with the player, you tell them no, this is too early. You've got to be patient, come off the bench, work harder in training, be emotionally balanced. And if it takes four years, that's okay. I became a national team player at 23 and still had over 100 caps.

U.S. players used to develop later because they went to college, but today's elite Americans are largely forgoing that route. Other countries play 12 months a year, and colleges play only three months a year. Over the course of a college career, you're losing what amounts to three years of technical and physical development. You can't catch up anymore. You can try to make up the thousands of hours that kids play in other countries, but it's impossible. These hours as a kid define your technical ability -- your first touch, vision and calmness on the ball.

Can you see the result of those hours in German-Americans like Chandler and Johnson? They've got the technical edge. They know when to get nasty, and they read the game ahead. Reading the game ahead is similar to American football, when the quarterback throws the ball through something that he sees. Or in basketball, with the vision you need to see the whole court. This is something that you learn as a kid. By playing, playing, playing -- and goofing around -- you develop the ability. I can't teach a player to shield, to see the field on a 180-degree spectrum. That has to happen on its own.

The influx of dual-citizenship talent brings up an interesting scenario. In the 2014 World Cup, you could have five or six U.S. players whose first language isn't English. Is that a problem? No, they all know English. There's no other sport where this happens so much, because it's global.

You played professionally in four countries. How did that experience shape your worldview? I realized pretty early that I could play in the best leagues in the world and make a heck of a lot of money. I never went to college. I always missed this kind of element because my best friends became attorneys or engineers. I got to play soccer, and I had so much passion for it, but I never had this intellectual experience. And then I realized that going to Italy, to France, is a type of school that doesn't give me a diploma but rather a tremendous life experience. I know people in every country where I played that I can call, and now I'm thankful I can use a network that probably not many people have.

You're using that network to send American players to train overseas, like Brek Shea practicing with Arsenal. What are the benefits of that? I called their manager, Arsene Wenger, and set this thing up. A player like Brek has tremendous potential, but it's a raw talent. He needs a lot of guidance, a lot of attention. I worked with Wenger for two years in Monaco, and he's a coach who sees all those elements. We'll place other players in Germany or England, depending on my network, to give them an idea of what the game in Europe is really about. It's not only the training and matches. Soccer is your life. People live for the game in Europe. There is no escape.

That's obviously in contrast to the soccer culture in America. It's just where soccer is in the big picture of the American sports landscape, but if you look at what happened to the game the last 15 years, then you're probably speechless. You have a league with 19 teams, beautiful stadiums, infrastructure and youth development. You have five channels that show all the leagues in the world, so a soccer fanatic can have everything he wants in America. But it's still not football, baseball or basketball, and that's okay. I think there is enough space for soccer in a country with 300 million people.

You once attended a Mike Krzyzewski leadership seminar. You've spoken with famous coaches like Pete Carroll and Phil Jackson. What have you learned from them? Pete is so high-energy. He clearly gives the message: Every game, use only the best that you have. He's so driven to compete; it's fascinating. Do I understand American football? No. He showed me his USC playbook, and I couldn't believe it. Because in soccer everything is improvised. The way Coach K connected his basketball world with the entrepreneurial world by doing seminars left me speechless. And Phil Jackson is an amazingly positive, calm communicator with very clear vision. You can read it in his body language, in his eyes.

Ultimately, coaches are judged by results. What makes you think the U.S. can beat Mexico when it counts? How far can you go in 2014? When you get to 50-50 games, it's the mindset that beats them, like a strong belief in yourself and staying calm when it gets really hostile in Central America. That's why the U.S. built a strong position against Mexico, even if Mexico won the previous two Gold Cups. You know, they don't really like to play the U.S. They know we have a certain edge of toughness. Argentina knows when they play Germany that there will be constant grinding. Are the Argentineans better players? Yes. But we'd steal their ball. Your toy is gone; now do something about it. It is all mind games. And the World Cup is another thing. The World Cup is all about the moment, the momentum. Anything can happen in the World Cup.

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He interviewed Klinsmann on Nov. 8 and 11, 2011. Follow The Mag on Twitter @ESPNmag and like us on Facebook.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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