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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

It's Juergen Klinsmann's turn to be teacher

The U.S. national soccer coach, who says the sport was his college, now will be teaching American players seeking success in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

September 01, 2011|By Grahame L. Jones
  • U.S. men's soccer Coach Juergen Klinsmann watches his players during a team practice session at the Home Depot Center on Tuesday.
U.S. men's soccer Coach Juergen Klinsmann watches his players during… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

His hair is lion-colored, kind of tawny. His gray-blue eyes, ideally, should also have a predatory aspect. They should be focused, intense, prey-seeking.

If he had talons instead of feet, it would come as no surprise.

That's the way the world remembers Juergen Klinsmann, who in his day was one of international soccer's most feared strikers, a goal scorer extraordinaire for top teams in Germany, Italy, France and England.

But 13 years in beachfront California have turned Klinsmann into a more laid-back character. He is 47 now and long since retired as a player. The cunning that made him a World Cup winner and a European champion for Germany during the 1990s has been replaced by a quiet good humor.

That does not mean that Klinsmann has lost his ambition and drive, but there is much more to him than his distinguished resume might suggest.

The recently appointed coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team knows, for instance, the best way to get a faulty washing machine fixed in Italy: Don't be German about it.

"That is a completely different lifestyle," said Klinsmann, who played for three seasons at Inter Milan, after a long spell at VfB Stuttgart and before his time at AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur and Bayern Munich.

"If your washing machine is broken [in Italy] and you get an appointment the next day at 2 o'clock, they're not showing up until next week. If you make the German choice and you go at them and become really angry, then you will become angry every day.

"Or you can choose to accept the way they're doing it and say, 'OK, show up next week, whenever. … '

"So I realized just months into that experience that you have to adjust, not they.

"Soccer was my college, traveling the countries, learning the languages. I feel part of all those places where I lived."

Orange County has been Klinsmann's home since 1998. He has an American wife and American children, but he is difficult to put in a box. He is a little bit German, Italian, French, English and a little bit American.

"I have lived that way now for more than 25 years, always going between different cultures and places," he said. "It has made my life a really wonderful experience and I'm thankful. Soccer gave me that; it opened the doors."

There were difficult lessons learned along the way, as during Klinsmann's time with Tottenham in London.

"England was another adjustment for me because of being provoked," he said. "Why does a German want to be in England? Now comes the whole kind of Second World War story" — the taunts by fans and in the tabloids.

"So I realized you have to joke with them, otherwise they won't accept you. So I started to joke with them and then suddenly you score a couple of goals and everything is fine."

At Monaco, Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's longtime coach but at that time Monaco's mentor, provided the schooling.

"I had arguments with Arsene," Klinsmann said. "I said, 'Why do you not play [Youri] Djorkaeff? You put him on the bench. He is such a great talent.'

"He said, 'Juergen, because he doesn't get it yet, to be a real focused professional.'

"Two years later, Djorkaeff was a national team player and a couple of years later he was a World Cup winner. And then I realized: [Wenger] actually sacrificed one of our best players to teach him those lessons."

Now it is Klinsmann doing the teaching, trying to restructure the entire national soccer program, trying to reinvent the U.S. team, trying to raise the standard of play ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"The mind-set plays a huge role as you go toward a World Cup," he said, "so I need to figure out early enough what players are really up to that task.

"Ideally, I'd like to see a team that takes risks and expresses itself and wants to have also a good time. I always tell players, if you have a smile on your face you can't really make a mistake, it's difficult. Because that means your mind-set is positive and you're convinced of the next step. If your mind-set is negative, then you will lose that one-against-one battle, probably."

But first things first.

Martin Vasquez soon will be appointed as Klinsmann's top assistant and coaching staffs will be named for all the age-level U.S. national teams.

The would-be Olympic team that in March will try to qualify for London 2012 is crucial. "I expect that team will feed at least five, six, seven players into the World Cup team for 2014," Klinsmann said.

"It's a huge opportunity for those players. For that [under-23] age group, it could be an experience that helps them to develop, to deal with the expectations and with the stress," he said.

Klinsmann can be animated about the prospects for the next generation of American players.

"The players step by step will realize that I am somebody that will back them," he said. "I let the youngsters go out there and make mistakes. I don't scream at them and criticize them for that. I actually encourage them" as long as they learn from those mistakes.

Young players such as Freddy Adu and Juan Agudelo could blossom.

"I told Agudelo, 'Be 18, be yourself, relax. Give your best, that's all we expect,' " Klinsmann said.

"I told Freddy, I don't want you to hang out with the 30-year-olds. I want you to hang out with the 20-year-olds and joke around and have a good time but be focused."

There will be new faces aplenty.

"Thomas Rongen [U.S. staff coach] did an extremely good job identifying all the 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds all over the world that have American background," Klinsmann said. "We have a whole list.

"So I don't feel restricted by the pool we have right now. I'm totally open to anybody. ... For me, a good player is a good player. It's very simple; it's only about quality. I only look for quality."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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