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New Coach Juergen Klinsmann can lift U.S. soccer if given free rein

Klinsmann, the new U.S. national team coach, has a better track record and credentials than any of his predecessors in the job. But it won't work unless he has total control.

July 29, 2011|By Grahame L. Jones
  • Juergen Klinsmann directs Bayern Munich during his tenure as coach for the German first division team.
Juergen Klinsmann directs Bayern Munich during his tenure as coach for… (Martin Meissner / Associated…)

The baker's son from Goeppingen, Germany, has finally hit the big time!

If that was the reaction Friday to the news that Juergen Klinsmann had been named coach of the U.S. national soccer team, then it was way, way off the mark.

Klinsmann, who turns 47 on Saturday, has been a household name in international soccer for more than two decades, so the fact that he has become the 35th man to hold the U.S. men's soccer coaching reins is only the latest step — or misstep — in an already storied career.

One thing is certain: None of the 34 coaches who preceded him had his credentials — either as a player or as a coach. Good men and true they might have been, but he is in an altogether different league.

None of the 34 in their playing days won a World Cup, as Klinsmann did with Germany in 1990.

None of them, in their playing days, captained their country to a European championship, as Klinsmann did with Germany in 1996.

None of them, in their coaching days, led a team to third place in the World Cup, as Klinsmann did with Germany in 2006.

Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, said Friday that Klinsmann has "the experience and knowledge to advance the program" — and let's not kid ourselves, the program desperately needs advancing.

In fact, it probably needs demolishing first, redesigning second and rebuilding third — not just the U.S. national team itself but the entire way in which players are discovered, selected and trained at all age levels within the national program.

Even the type of players being called up needs to be reexamined.

Klinsmann is the right man for such a job. He was the right man five years ago, too, but no agreement could be reached. Hopefully, the obstacles that stood in the way then — and perhaps last year when his name again was raised — have been overcome.

To be effective, Klinsmann needs full control. He has the vision, but that means little without the authority.

Based in California for the past dozen years or so — he, his American wife and their children call Orange County home — he has had ample time to study the American soccer scene.

He has not always been impressed by what he has seen and is on the record as saying U.S. players need to be pushed much harder — by their coaches, by the fans and by the media — if they are to raise their standard.

The first thing current or would-be national team players should realize is that the rug is about to be pulled out from beneath any comfort zone they might inhabit.

Klinsmann will drive them, he will demand more of them, he will push them beyond whatever limits they have so far reached. Some will survive. Some will not.

When he took charge of Germany in 2004, despite having no coaching experience, Klinsmann immediately brought about change. Younger, fitter, faster players were the new order of the day. A commitment to attacking soccer was the command from on high.

It worked brilliantly then, but will it work now? Will it work here?

Klinsmann has ludicrously little time before he and his team are put under the microscope. The U.S. has a friendly scheduled against archrival Mexico on Aug. 10 in Philadelphia, after which there are friendly matches Sept. 2 against Costa Rica at the Home Depot Center and Sept. 6 against Belgium in Brussels.

In other words, Klinsmann has only days to put together a coaching staff. Conceivably, he already has the names in mind and might announce them Monday at his introductory news conference in New York.

He also needs to decide whether he will simultaneously coach the under-23 team that will be attempting to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics (Klinsmann won a bronze medal with Germany in the 1988 Seoul Games) and, if not, who to put in that position, and who, also, to name as under-20 national coach.

There has to be continuity of style and philosophy throughout the U.S. program, and Klinsmann has to have confidence and trust in the age-level coaches beneath him.

As for the U.S. roster, the fans will expect immediate change, if not in personnel then at least in tactics and approach. In short, they want to see the U.S. in 2012 playing like Germany in 2006. And if not in 2012, then certainly in 2014.

It is no easy task facing Klinsmann. In fact it's probably the most difficult challenge he has faced in a career that saw him score 47 goals in 108 games for Germany and also star at such clubs as VfB Stuttgart, Inter Milan, AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich.

What motivated him to take the U.S. job is not readily apparent. Financially, he is more than comfortable. His reputation within soccer worldwide is as secure as can be.

That leaves only the challenge, the love of the game, and the belief that he can make a difference.

He deserves the chance to succeed.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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