Sporting News

How much leeway does one good week buy Jurgen Klinsmann?

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Unless you’re deaf to the discussion that surrounds the U.S. men’s national team (and if you are, more power to you), you noticed how Brian Straus’s Sporting News piece was disproportionately embraced by the critics – those who already had doubts about Jurgen Klinsmann. As ‘level-handed’ as Straus tried to be about relaying his insiders’ doubts, the piece was laced with indictments. If you were at all concerned about the national team’s direction, the story become vindication.

Opposing views eventually surfaced, but by then the contingent of detractors had been lured into the open. For them, Straus’s work was ammunition. Philipp Lahm’s criticisms were already emblazoned in their minds, ready to unload in retort whenever the occasion arouse. For them Joachim Löw, not Klinsmann, was always the key to Germany. Take him out of the equation, and all Klinsmann had to his coaching career was his failure at Bayern. This guy may not even be as good as Bradley.

And in the buildup to Costa Rica, those criticisms hit a crescendo only to fe hoisted on their own petard, sent falling to the Dick’s Sporting Goods pitch to be buried frozen under foot. Beneath ankle-deep snow and three World Cup qualifying points, the detractors’ case started to turn cold. Not only had the U.S. won, but the adaptability Klinsmann had been preaching for near-two years was on display, taking full points in a game everybody acknowledged as must win.

After the result at Azteca provided further validation, it’s tempting to think the anxiety of Colorado is in the team’s past, though that would seriously underestimate the strength of the detractor’s beliefs. Just as they crouched in wait for work like the Sporting News’s to shine light on dressing room rumblings, so they’ll wait for the team’s next stumble. If the attack doesn’t come around at Jamaica or at home against Panama and Honduras, expect a humbled but dedicated opposition to ask if the U.S. isn’t just delaying the inevitable. Until Klinsmann fulfills the promises, there will always be doubters.

There’s nothing unfair about holding coaches to standards, but it’s important remember who sets those standards. Or in the case of Klinsmann – a man whose easy demeanor leaves some to read him as arrogant or aloof – it’s important to realize who didn’t set those standards. Klinsmann has never promised to deliver a World Cup, nor has he claimed he’ll be the man to finally make the U.S. a power commensurate with the country’s stature. He’s only come in with a plan to improve U.S. Soccer, something every boss should have in tow. That Klinsmann’s plan is more exhaustive, ambitious, and revolutionary than his predecessors’ doesn’t mean his ultimate goal (progress) is any different.

With the same eye toward success as any coach who would take the U.S.’s reigns, it seems Klinsmann’s only arrogance was deigning to accept a position he was granted, because it was inevitable a man of with his CV would engender high expectations. His main problem is having different, proven, but easily criticized plan to build a program, the scope of which allows critics to bemoan one aspect (tactics) while undervaluing others.

One good week is can neither squelch nor refocus that dissent. The skepticism is too deep-seeded to uproot with five days and four points. That those results came in the face an uncoiled backlash will pierce the pride of the slumbering bully, but he’ll resurface. Only fulfilling contrived promises will smooth Klinsmann’s course.

But Klinsmann has bought himself some time, as well as some credibility. The next bump in the road won’t be met with the same scrutiny, and crisis number two will be evaluating knowing how Klinsmann defused crisis number one.

But until the U.S. becomes Germany – or CONCACAF’s facsimile there of – Klinsmann be seen as a false prophet, and through no fault of his own. With ever word of dissent that leaks from the locker room, people who never wanted Klinsmann hired in the first place will the seeds of a bigger, perhaps non-existent problem. If he stumbles in Panama, fails to win the Gold Cup, or can’t get past the Round of 16 in Brazil, he’ll be no better than Bob, regardless of whether he’s set the underlying course in a new, more versatile direction.

The crisis is over, but the U.S. needs more than a re-centered campaign for Klinsmann to earn any leeway with his doubters.

Michael Bradley: Contributions to recent reports ‘shameful,’ ’embarrassing,’ and cross the line

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“I think it is shameful,” was Michael Bradley’s reaction. The U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder was asked for this thoughts on Monday’s Sporting News feature that detailed criticisms of U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Eleven current players as well as another 11 sources close to the team were given anonymity in exchange for their participation. For Bradley, their contributions amounted to a betrayal.

“[Y]ou cross a line when you take those thoughts and you take your disappointments outside of the team and outside of the inner circle,” Bradley told the assembled media in Colorado. “So for me, it doesn’t help anybody, it doesn’t help anything that we are trying to do this week.”

Bradley becomes the third veteran of the national team to offer his thoughts in the wake to the Sporting News’ piece. Carlos Bocanegra posted his thoughts on Facebook Monday night, a defense a Jurgen Klinsmann’s communication with his players. On Tuesday, Tim Howard spoke out against the notion that the U.S.’s is a locker room divided.

“On every team in the world, not every guy is going to be happy,” Bradley explained, “on every team in the world there are going to be guys who go back to their room and talk with their roommate about things that they wish were different, things they wish would be done another way, but that is normal.”

The problems start when those critiques go beyond the team’s inner circles. Or, as Bradley put it, when players don’t have “the balls” to speak in front of the group.

“When you play on a team you have a chance everyday to give everything you have and part of that means having the balls to say things to guys to their face, having the balls to say things in front of the team.

“In those ways it is really disappointing that in a week as important as this, with so much on the line, that you would have something like that happen.”

Bradley called for the U.S. to turn their attentions to the field, saying the team “let ourselves down a little bit” given the revelations in Sporting News’ work.

“It is our job to represent ourselves and represent our country in a way that makes everybody proud.”

With three veterans speaking out and another being named captain, the week’s controversy seems to be unifying the team – in word and action if not in actual camaraderie. The actual bonds between players can only be seen from inside the dressing room, though one thing we can infer from Bradley’s comments is that these issues had not been brought up within the group at large. If there is major dissension in the ranks, it’s not bubbling up for team-wide discussion.

Then again, that seems to be Bradley’s main issue. Reports say there are problems, their existence may go beyond a select few, yet the team leaders aren’t seeing anybody step forward to bring them to the group.

And that leaves the obvious, lingering question: Which players contributed to Sporting News’ report? Are these fringe players unhappy with Klinsmann’s decisions (and their roles in the team)? Are the most damning critiques — the ones creating the most waves — from players? Or are they from the sources most distant from the current core?

Because as of now, three of the team’s most important players have spoken out to clarify the situation. Though it’s possible they contributed in some form, they seem unlikely to be the ones giving the anonymous accounts. So, who did?

Tim Howard next to defuse U.S. man’s national team controversy (and the developing picture)

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The piece that’s become the talk of the U.S. Soccer world was already a six-of-one-half kind of story, but with a couple of veterans going on record to clarify some of the depictions given to the Sporting News, if feels like there’s some record-straightening going on. Carlos Bocanegra was quick to respond via his Facebook, talking up some of Jurgen Klinsmann’s positive qualities. Now Tim Howard’s gone on record with Soccer by Ives to address the idea of a locker room divided. If Steve Cherundolo and Clint Dempsey chime in, this story may get double back on itself. Or worse.

First, let’s talk Tim Howard. The Everton keeper is out of this week’s qualifiers with broken bones in his back. When he’s in the team, he’s recognized as one of the its leaders, a status that makes his comments to SBI all the more meaningful:

“Our team has always been made up of players who come from different backgrounds, which has been a source of strength for the group. No matter where players are from, the pride in wearing the U.S. shirt is the only thing that matter (sic) to us.

“We have a great group of guys who are all committed to the cause, and the morale and the camaraderie remains high. We are completely unified in our ultimate goal, which is to qualify for the World Cup.”

Obviously these comments only speak to one of many concerns raised by players in Sporting News’ work, but the idea of a divided locker room — one which pitted German-American in a type of culturally-driven split — was one of the more concerning aspects of yesterday’s feature. But between Bocanegra and Howard we have two players who’ve alluded to they unity (Bocanegra’s word) and camaraderie (Howard’s) as a plus. If the locker room isn’t exactly fraternal, I’m inclined to think it’s tenable.

This also gets back to what we discussed in the Bocanegra post. Are these comments just window dressing from a leader or an earnest rebuttal? Given Bocanegra’s role in the team, you can see the virtues of maintaining a public face. But Howard? He’s not the captain. He could stay quiet, yet he’s spoken out.

We’ll double back on this later today, but these two public clarifications bring up a number of concerns:

  • First, this story may have more legs and angles than we thought. If the Sporting News’ story was allowed to run its course, it might die out or be overshadowed come Friday – a one-time bomb. But the life cycle for this story may be longer than we thought (and even from the team’s point of view, that may not be a bad thing).
  • Second, a locker room divided on cultural lines? You don’t say. Shock-gasp-awe. That doesn’t mean the locker room is poisonous, about to explode, or even out of the ordinary. This is just how people tend to organize themselves, for better or worse. More on this later.
  • Third, the Sporting News claimed 22 sources in and around the team, all with a certain level of knowledge of U.S. Soccer. It might be time for us to start seriously considering who these sources could be, because it’s no secret that Klinsmann’s hiring has never been fully loved by the entire establishment. If a revered team member is giving up the worst on Klinsmann, that’s telling. If it’s a former player who never agreed with the hire in the first place, we need to consider the comments in a completely different light.
  • Fourth, there is the risk of a backlash overshadowing the real issues. The concerns brought up by Sporting News are real. The question is more of magnitude than existence. Comments like Bocanegra’s or Howard’s shouldn’t be used to disregard the findings from SN’s work.
  • And finally, the more people that come out clarifying this story, the easy it’s going to be to identify those anonymous sources. And if you think things are bad now (and they’re not, really), it could get worse if people are able to zero in on the dissectors who helped light a powder keg before a World Cup qualifier.

Amid new scrutiny, Klinsmann may already have recipe for survival

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The U.S. Soccer world may be in an uproar after Sporting News detailed the divisions within the States’ locker room, but as the story notes, those divisions didn’t just pop-up post-San Pedro Sula. The loss to Honduras has become a flash point for criticism, but it has done little to change what’s going on with the team. There have always been doubts, there have always been non-believers, and for Jurgen Klinsmann, there have always been huge challenges to change a culture that’s proving more stubborn than expected.

As another veteran of the circuit detailed, all is not lost for Klinsmann, and given some of the responses he gave Sporting News, the U.S. boss is not only aware of the issues but anticipated them. Still, the time for results is nigh, with anything but a win Friday versus Costa Rica turning Tuesday’s match in Mexico into a must win. And if the Ticos do get out of Commerce with a result, expect the U.S. pundits to take the Sporting News’ work and eviscerate the national team boss.

(MORE: Noah Davis on the chaos in Klinsmann’s camp)

“These comments are just normal to me. This team is in a transition. Between two World Cup cycles, faces change. We’re doing that, and you also kind of mix up the chemistry. There will be a new group of leaders coming through that process, and that will be responsible for molding everything together.”
— Klinsmann, to Sporting News

Those are the personal stakes for Klinsmann heading into Friday’s match, though if the Legend of Jurgen holds, he doesn’t care. He might not even care enough to address the Sporting News’ piece with his team, though he will certainly have read it. The U.S. boss is always aware of the conversation, but as the legend holds he doesn’t take any of it personally. Instead of ruminating on what many likened to a dressing down, he’s undoubtedly focused on preparing an undermanned team for a game he’s called as a must win.

Not exactly the best time to be missing your top goalkeeper and all your choice fullbacks while you’re trying to forge a relationship between your new center back combo?

source:  For some, Klinsmann’s made his bed, but you can’t help but notice a number of factors beyond his control have contrived to set up a trap for the U.S. boss. Klinsmann didn’t relish Landon Donovan’s health issues ahead of his sabbatical, factors which have left the U.S. without their biggest star for much of Klinsmann’s tenure. He didn’t contribute to Clint Dempsey’s injuries or dip in form, Tim Howard’s broken bones, Michael Bradley’s lost playing time, or injuries to Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Edgar Castillo. He didn’t wreck Omar Gonzalez’s knee, and he didn’t age Carlos Bocanegra and move him to a second division team that has benched him. If detractors get their chance to toss dirt on Klinsmann’s grave, they may want to acknowledge the circumstances that led to his demise.

(MORE: Bocanegra speaks out | Howard follows | Bradley calls out sources)

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For all their issues, the States are far from doomed. On paper, they have a team that should beat Costa Rica, particularly if the facets Klinsmann has tried to emphasize prove valuable in Commerce. Those facets include fitness, a new more adaptable mentality, but perhaps most importantly (and most maligned) a style of soccer that focuses on technique, possession, and building a style of play that isn’t unduly dependent on athleticism.

“It’s not the same routine they were used to before we came on board. And my job is to elevate the program and I can’t do that by doing the exact same of what they did before me. I can only get to another level by bringing in new players and challenging the older players. By challenging them in every training session, by giving them uncertain feelings here and there—‘Do I play or not play?’—and so on.”
— Klinsmann, to Sporting News

All of which translates into a method to protect the defense. Eight times in their last 16 games, the U.S. has held at least 59.7 percent of the game’s possession. They kept a clean sheet in four of those matches and never gave up more than one goal.

Granted, none of those games were against Costa Rica, and none of them were in The Hex. But they did keep 69.1 of the ball in shutting out Jamaica last year. Against Guatemala, their possession numbers were 62.8 and 74.3. Versus Venezuela, they fished with just under 60 percent of the ball, while 61.9 and 66.1 possession in two games against Canada produced 180 shutout minutes.

All of those matches may prove easier than Friday’s, but they outline a recipe. Possession may not necessarily lead to wins, but it’s hard to argue with the basic logic supporting its virtue: It’s almost impossible for your opponents to score when they don’t have the ball. And the best way to protect a potentially suspect defense will be for Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey and the rest of the team to do what they’ve proved they can: Keep the ball.

(MORE: Dempsey to captain U.S. vs. Costa Rica, Mexico)

Should that recipe save the U.S. on Friday, Klinsmann will have a measure of vindication in what’s been his most trying time. The Sporting News report was damning in its quality – an inscrutable survey from an established source – but it didn’t offer conclusions. It left its conclusions to the readers, most of whom let the anxiety surrounding their national team see the features as an indictment. More readily, the article presented a conflict, one which may be resolved on Friday.

If the U.S. lose, the players who detailed Klinsmann’s faults will be seen as overlooked canaries in a contaminated coal mine. But if Klinsmann wins and does so with an approach he’s fostered over the last year and a half, the besieged boss may deserve a series of anonymous recantations.

MLS, USL announce Reserve League, USL PRO integration

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A winter of rumor produced its end product on Wednesday when Major League Soccer and United Soccer Leagues established what MLS is calling “a groundbreaking, multi-year partnership,” one that will address the problem of Reserve League relevance that’s plagued the program since it was reintroduced in 2011.

Starting with the 2013 season, each Major League Soccer team can form partnership with an affiliate USL PRO club. That affiliation will see at least four players placed in the third division on a “long-term loan.” While MLS clubs are not required to enter into a partnership, those that do will forgo participation in the 2013 Reserve League.

United Soccer Leagues operate USL PRO, the 13-team league the functions as the third-tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid. USL also operates the Premier Development League,W-League,Super-20 League and Super Y-League.

The Sporting News’ Brian Straus reports four teams are expected to form affiliations this season, agreements which “will be customized to meet the needs of the respective teams.” Twelve other Reserve League teams will play home-and-home series with a USL PRO partner, while two more reserve league teams will play USL PRO’s Antigua franchise once each.

All interleague games will count in each competitions’ standings.

One Major League Soccer team will not participate in the deal and will only field a team in the Reserve League. Specific affiliations and pairings are expected to be announced later this week.

“This partnership represents the first step in a long-term alliance between MLS and USL PRO to connect domestic professional soccer through a system that benefits player development, competition and the overall business of our sport ,” MLS Executive Vice President of Player Relations & Competition Todd Durbin said Wednesday in a statement released by the league.  “Over the past several years, USL PRO has made great strides in restructuring their league in a manner that serves to complement the objectives of MLS.  This is a win-win for all involved, and it demonstrates our strong commitment to growing North American professional soccer at all levels.”

For Major League Soccer, the agreement should enhance competition for players participating in the Reserve League. Whereas before players would play a lightly-regarded 10-game schedule, now prospects can play in a more competitive environment, be that through a full third division schedule or with the enhanced competition of the home-and-homes (which can only be seen as a starting point for what will happen in the future).

For USL PRO (and the United Soccer Leagues), they get a credibility-boosting affiliation as well as a pipeline to player talent that would have previously languished in the reserve league. They also get a valuable business relationship with the Major League Soccer, one that should lead to a better on-field product.

Expect to see more from us on this deal in the coming days. For now, the news is the revamp of the MLS Reserve League, a change that forms a first of its kind link between the top and third divisions.