7714_isi_klinsmannjurgen_usmntjt030214146 John Todd/isiphotos.com

As a Recruiter, Klinsmann Has U.S. on a Good Path

Retooling player development processes is a steady—and slow—way to change a country's soccer fortunes. Mix in a little dual-national recruitment, however, and you can change things up in a hurry.
BY Blake Thomsen Posted
July 07, 2014
4:11 PM
IN THE AFTERMATH of the U.S.’s elimination from the 2014 World Cup, much has been made about the gap in talent between the U.S. and the world’s top teams. Former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, among others, has come out and said that it’s time for the U.S. “to start developing more into a nation that can control some of the big games, instead of reacting to the good play of the opposition.”

To do so, the prevailing logic goes, the U.S. simply needs better players. (We’ll leave aside the Landon Donovan-fueled discussion of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactics for another time and place). If Klinsmann could bring players off the bench of the quality of Romelu Lukaku, Mario Gotze, or Andre Schurrle—who were all used as substitutes against the U.S.—the Yanks would be able to play against any team in the world and feel good about their chances.

But unfortunately, boasting that kind of squad depth is far easier said than done. Germany and Belgium (and the rest of the world’s true soccer superpowers) have been developing a steady flow of homegrown world-class players for years. Despite the ever-increasing focus on improved player development, no one knows how long it will take for the U.S. to approach Germany or Belgium's stratosphere in the player-development department. At a bare minimum, though, it seems that the process will take at least 10 years, if not far longer.

However, the U.S. is far from hopeless when it comes to closing the massive talent gap in just one World Cup cycle. In fact, the U.S. is actually in better hands than any other country in the world that is also seeking to rapidly overhaul its player pool. How so? Put simply, Klinsmann has become the world’s best recruiter of dual-national players.

International recruiting in soccer isn’t an entirely new concept, even for the U.S. As early as the 1994 World Cup, the U.S. was fielding multiple dual-national players. German-American Thomas Dooley and Dutch-American Earnie Stewart were both sons of U.S. servicemen, and Tab Ramos spent the first 11 years of his life in Uruguay. More recently, Bob Bradley utilized dual-nationals as well, bringing Mix Diskerud and Jermaine Jones into the fold, as well as Jose Torres.

Other countries have taken to gobbling up a bigger country’s “C” and “D” team players—provided those players have ties to the smaller country in question—and using them to stockpile their national teams. Think Algeria’s use of players developed in France but with Algerian roots.

But Klinsmann has taken it to an entirely new level by actively recruiting promising young players around the world. The common thread with past dual-internationals, especially European-Americans, is that they generally weren’t good enough to play for the other country for which they were eligible. Even Jones, who was a revelation for the U.S. in the World Cup, only joined the U.S. after his Germany career was effectively over.

Past coaches simply needed to get on the phone with players—as Bradley did with Jones—after their international careers had faded with other countries to secure commitments. Thus, there usually wasn’t much true recruiting involved, but rather arrangements of mutual convenience.

Klinsmann, however, has turned the old system upside down with a number of impressive recruiting “gets” in his brief tenure. Instead of relying on castoffs, Klinsmann is actively winning recruiting battles against the likes of world No. 2 Germany for stars of today (Fabian Johnson) and tomorrow (Julian Green and John Brooks). Elsewhere, Aron Johannsson was snatched away from Iceland, where he could have been a national hero.

While the Bradley regime saw the world-class Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic slip painfully away, Klinsmann has yet to lose a major recruit. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Klinsmann is one of the most recognizable players of the past 30 years and is the World Cup’s sixth-leading goal scorer all-time. His sway with young players—especially those with German ties—is undeniable.

U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati confirmed as much in a recent interview. “If you’re a young German-American player,” he said, “it’s probably a little different to get a call from Jurgen Klinsmann than it might be from John Smith.”

Klinsmann himself has not understated his recruiting ability. “I think in the last two years, at least since I’m involved, in many of the cases we’ve won [dual-national recruits] over,” Klinsmann said. “We’ll try to do that in the future as well.”

In short, Klinsmann’s recruiting has proven to be a rapid potential solution to the U.S.’s talent deficiencies. Rather than waiting 10+ years for improved development strategies to produce maybe one or two stars, Klinsmann can just pick up the phone and initiate a (usually successful) dialogue with ready-made stars from around the globe. This, far more than Klinsmann’s coaching or youth development, best explains the potential for the shrinking of the player quality gap between the U.S. and elite soccer countries.

Despite the early promising signs, there is still much work to be done. As nice as it was to have Johnson, Brooks, Green, and Johannsson in Brazil, the U.S. still came up far short against Germany and Belgium in terms of player quality—and anyone who watched Argentina play Belgium on Saturday could easily note that the Yanks would have been similarly overmatched against Messi and Friends. But this is where, again, Klinsmann may just come to the rescue.

Klinsmann’s recruiting efforts for the next cycle are likely just getting started, with 17-year-old Ethiopian-German-American Arsenal sensation Gedion Zelalem next on his list. The amount of contact between the two is unknown, but after Zelalem initially looked a lock to play for Germany, the tides are steadily changing.

It’s no coincidence that Zelalem withdrew from a German U-17 squad in March that would have tied him to Germany for his entire international career. Even less coincidentally, the Washington Post’s Steven Goff reported that Zelalem was in the U.S. with his father in May to secure American citizen status via the Child Citizen Act of 2000. He’s not technically a U.S. player yet, but it seems likely that he’ll commit soon with Klinsmann hot on the recruiting trail.

Don’t expect Klinsmann’s efforts to stop there. Would anyone be surprised if Augsburg’s German-American Shawn Parker—who made his Bundesliga debut as a teenager—committed to the U.S. at some point in this cycle? And Zelalem and Parker are but two of many. Surely there are plenty of other promising dual-national Americans floating around Europe (or elsewhere).

Back in 2010, no one could have predicted that Johannsson or Green would play for the U.S. in 2014. In reality, no American could have even known who those guys were. But Klinsmann and his devoted staff have a way of finding the Greens and Johannssons of the world—and more importantly, they also have a way of getting them to commit.

It’s also worth noting that most of Klinsmann’s already-committed recruits are on the younger side. Green is 19, Brooks 21, Johannsson 23, and Johnson still just 26. Those four have a chance to be among the U.S.’s very best players in 2018, and all but an injury-hampered Johannsson already made big impacts in Brazil. Bremen native Terrence Boyd, controversially left off the World Cup roster, is also just 23.

It’s always questionable (and perhaps a bit reckless) to look too far ahead, but this discussion lends itself to a quick glance at the future. Here is a look at what a 2018 World Cup Starting XI comprised of exclusively dual-nationals could look like, aside from Brad Guzan in net. A quick note: for the purpose of this lineup, we’ll say Zelalem commits and Parker doesn’t.

Eight of the 10 dual-nationals there are Klinsmann recruits, and none will be over 30 in 2018.

The brilliant thing, of course, is that the U.S. need not field exclusively dual-nationals in Russia in four years time. Here’s a lineup that combines the best of both worlds, again with Zelalem included.

Aside from Besler, who will be 31 in 2018, all of the outfield players will still be under 30. Again, projecting any lineup even one year in advance, let alone four, is a dangerous game. But it’s hard to not get excited about the potential of this group, which boasts considerable talent and depth from homegrown Americans and dual-nationals alike.

Though perhaps not exactly sustainable from generation to generation, this mix of homegrown and dual-national players is the present and short-term future of U.S. Soccer. Consider the 2014 World Cup, in which the U.S. beat the odds and qualified from a very difficult group. With apologies to DeAndre Yedlin, the U.S.’s four standout outfield players were two players from America’s heartland—Clint Dempsey and Matt Besler—and two players from German metropolises—Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson. Expect a similar talent distribution between homegrown Americans and dual-nationals in the future.

The only drawback of Klinsmann’s aggressive recruiting is the possible lack of commitment to the U.S. cause from players that some perceive as more mercenaries than patriots. ESPN’s Alexi Lalas has long maintained the importance of full commitment to the U.S.—he has repeatedly suggested that players who aren’t willing to bleed for the U.S. in the same way that homegrown Americans are have no place in the team.

Considering the U.S. has long relied on functioning as more than the sum of its parts due to an incredible team spirit, it’s a valid line of thinking—though admittedly one that can get uncomfortably xenophobic in a hurry.

With that said, lack of commitment certainly hasn’t been an issue so far. It clearly wasn’t in this World Cup, and that’s highly unlikely to change anytime soon.

All of this is not to say that the U.S. will be on the same talent level as Belgium or Germany (or Argentina, or Brazil, or whoever) in 2018. But as long as master-recruiter Klinsmann is at the helm, it seems probable that the U.S. will continue to close the gap, improved homegrown player development or not.

Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor. If players were eligible for the country of their great-grandparents, he’d be a dual-national star for the Cuban national team. Follow him on Twitter.

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