2615_isi_klinsmannjurgen_usmntmj040214273 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com

Does Jurgen Klinsmann Know What He's Doing?

The finger-wagging, the condescension, the incessant provocations—Klinsmann says that these tactics are all part of his plan for improving soccer in America. Leander Schaerlaeckens remains unconvinced.
BY Leander Schaerlaeckens Posted
February 06, 2015
5:56 PM
JURGEN KLINSMANN SAYS he’s doing all of this on purpose.

The U.S. national team coach and U.S. Soccer technical director contends that the barrage of jabs he has systematically unleashed on the American soccer community is intentional and done for effect.

Since the day he took the job in the summer of 2011, the former World Cup winner—who laid the foundation for future German success in charge of Die Mannschaft but flamed out spectacularly when put in charge of Bayern Munich in his only other coaching gig–has been trying to shove American soccer out of its comfort zone, as he would put it.

He has spoken his mind, pointing out all the things he thinks are wrong. Then, without fail, he smiles and says it's fine.

To an extent, that’s justified. The national team program had gotten a tad stale. And much progress needed to be made in all aspects of the game if soccer was to push to a higher level in the U.S.—which was the very thing Klinsmann was hired to accomplish.

It’s just that the way he has gone about it, and continues to go about it, is growing tiresome.

Klinsmann talks a lot. And most of what he says is critical. It’s designed to get a rise out of people, a kind of ploy to induce motivation through consternation. In so doing, Klinsmann has created a culture of combativeness.

Just a few days ago, he went on FOX Sports 1 and said that American players, fans, and media need to get more educated. His brazen remarks came in response to a bit of a furor over his claim that some American players didn’t show up to January camp fit enough. He had used that as an excuse for his team winning just one of its last nine games, even though only the last one of those—a 3-2 loss to Chile—occurred during that camp. One could argue just as easily that since the players had been under his watch for the last 16 days, their alleged lack of fitness—which is an unheard-of accusation to be leveled at American soccer players, by the way—was at least partly his responsibility.

There is a disconnect there. Klinsmann has said several times that in order for the U.S. to progress, his program needs more scrutiny. When that criticism comes, however, he brushes it off by claiming that those observers are uneducated.

The condescension in Klinsmann’s many, many utterances has been systemic. America is not Germany, which seems to be his paradigm for a soccer nation. It appears as if he’s trying to recreate his home country in his adopted home country. But there is only one Germany. And every other country has to find a different way, tailored to its own quirks. Klinsmann doesn’t seem to get that you can’t just strong-arm America into becoming Europe.

It would help, however, if he were more lucid when he explains his vision. Klinsmann talks an awful lot, but he’s a poor communicator. After listening to him for three-and-a-half years, it’s still hard to make out what it is he’s trying to do, exactly. Much of what he says is either void or nonsensical. And almost all of it is repetitive.

It may be a language barrier. It may be that he doesn’t want to lay out too much detail. (In the immortal words of Johan Cruyff: “If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better.”)

But what isn’t in doubt is that the things he says, the culture war he wages in the press, is very deliberate.

“I say it because I know there will be a discussion about it,” he told ESPNFC.com the other day. “I want this discussion to happen. And if there are a couple of opinions out there clashing, it’s good.”

The problem with how Klinsmann frames the debate, however, is that he casts it as a fight between right and wrong. He is right; everyone else is wrong.

While he hardly has the results to go around criticizing other people, Klinsmann has consistently gone after his own players, denigrated America’s nascent soccer culture, taken swipes at the program—and, by inference, his predecessors—and refused to quit blasting Major League Soccer, which now employs the vast majority of his team. In the fall, MLS Commissioner Don Garber justifiably grew fed up and fired back.

“When this thing came up with Don Garber, there was nothing offensive in it,” Klinsmann told ESPNFC. “I just said we need to have a discussion about soccer.”

Actually, that’s not what he said.

What Klinsmann did say in October, drawing Garber’s ire, was this: “I made it clear with Clint [Dempsey]’s move back and Michael [Bradley]’s move back [to MLS] that it’s going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest.”

Couching something as reality and honesty is not an invitation to have a discussion, it’s a condemnation in absolute terms. And to MLS, it certainly was offensive.

“We need to have different opinions,” Klinsmann continued to ESPNFC. “I’m not saying I know it all, absolutely not.”

Again, his tone of voice doesn’t feel like a plea for discourse but instead comes across as a denouncement. And lately it’s beginning to feel like Klinsmann is just playing the blame game. The national team hasn’t been doing so hot. And so the man in charge points his finger at just about everyone but himself.

With the endless preaching and incessant criticism of others, this staggering absence of self-awareness is conspiring to produce a building Klinsmann fatigue. If the players haven’t caught it already, plenty of observers have.

And even if he's saying the things he says on purpose, it’s getting harder and harder to accept at face value that Klinsmann knows what he’s doing.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a freelance soccer writer. Follow him on Twitter.

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