Journalists generally want three things in highly placed sources: accessibility, honesty and a reasonable amount of candor. That’s about it.
As such, I got to work with three of my favorite managers in these regards on Sunday. No coach will ever tell you 100 percent of everything on their minds; that’s simply not practical. And probably not smart! Nor might you ever gain access 100 percent of the time you’d like it. Same thing: not practical. They have jobs to do, of course.
And yet, Red Bulls manager Hans Backe, FC Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman and U.S. national team boss Jurgen Klinsmann get pretty darn close to providing all of the above.
There are other candid, regularly available managers in the U.S. Soccer establishment. Then again, plenty of them work the “spin” the way Nick Rimando works the nets. Others still, given their druthers, would never deal with media at all. (Never mind that if reporters, broadcasters, bloggers, etc., weren’t interested enough to ask questions, all these guys would be playing and coaching in Sunday amateur leagues – for a whole lot less money, believe me.)
And then there are a few others who just take themselves too damn seriously. It’s all so weighty and oppressive, like life-of-death stuff. And that’s just after some preseason friendly!
These three never leave the impression that they are too impressed with themselves.
But it’s that candor that really makes time around them solid gold. They are invaluable tools for someone like me, someone attempting to absorb every possible bit and byte of information and insight.
Here’s what Klinsmann told a few of us about his approach to players, about what he’s trying to get across to young guys like Brek Shea and Zach Loyd. It boils down to this: “You get out what you put in.”
Only, that’s all most coaches would say about it, all they would care to share during an exchange with reporters. Klinsmann, one of the most comfortable characters with media I’ve ever been around, goes the extra yards to help everyone truly understand:
“We’re trying to teach them, there’s no moment to relax anymore. There’s no moment to take it easy anymore. I request from you guys that you are the first at training [with their MLS clubs], that you are the last that leaves. You are the one that must do it. There’s more work after training session is over.
“I expect that you make the right choices when you walk through the airport with what you eat, what you drink. And if you make the wrong choices, you don’t make them against me, you [are making] them against yourself. So you will be the one that it’s against if you drink Cokes. It’s not me. So this kind of learning curve is what we are trying to bring across, and I think the players that want to get it, they need to become more self-responsible.
“Don’t look at the coach. What is the coach saying next? It’s really your decision now. This is a bit different to traditional old ways, especially coming from the American background is very coaches-driven – football, baseball and even basketball. And soccer is the opposite. It’s not coaches-driven. It’s the opposite, so we basically have to put them in the driver’s seat, that they make their own decisions and they make their own mistakes.”
In the end, he just wants to pick the best players – and all they put in will eventually make the selections for him. Klinsmann finished by joking about how he’s not going to put food in front of players and say, “Eat this, not that.”
“Then he’ll be 35 [years old] and still doing the same stuff. So I’m not doing that. I already have two kids at home!”
As for Backe and his moment of especially useful candor: He was visibly upset at one point in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to FC Dallas, marching all the way down in front of the home team’s bench to do some serious hollering. Most managers wouldn’t say what they were hot and bothered about, or they might backpedal and soften the message. Not Backe.
“Well this thing pisses me off …” he said.
He was upset when FC Dallas kept playing, despite one of its own players being sprawled on the turf. When the Red Bulls took possession, Joel Lindpere kicked the ball out of bounds. Backe wanted his players to let keep going as well, to let the referee make that call.
As for Hydman: I asked about the choice to start Hernan Pertuz over George John, the incumbent FCD center back just back from the oddest loan spell in the history of the world. (He never played during two months on loan at West Ham.)
Hyndman basically explained that a “human element” infiltrates some of these choices. Here’s a guy who had trained all preseason, he said of Pertuz, a guy competing against someone who had, literally, just gotten back into the country after a couple months away. In other words, it seemed cruel in some ways to start John.
But this was even more interesting: Hyndman reminded everyone that FC Dallas has several Colombian players, just like Pertuz. How may they have felt, he asked, if they saw a sudden reduction in Pertuz’s role based on little evidence in practice? Would they interpret such an arbitrary choice as a disrespectful maneuver? Would he be sowing disharmony and distrust in his own locker room?
He was basically saying that these things sometimes needed to be handled carefully, thoughtfully.
And he’s correct, of course. Only most coaches wouldn’t so freely admit it.