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Juergen Klinsmann puts U.S. soccer on fast track

KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

New U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann says the national team is well behind the world elite. To make up ground quickly, he's instituted European-style training methods in advance of World Cup qualifying.

January 21, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks on during a friendly match against Venezuela at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday.
U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks on during a friendly match against Venezuela… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)

Reporting from Glendale, Ariz. -- Hey, America, Juergen Klinsmann has a message for you: You've fallen behind the rest of the world in soccer.

Way behind.

"Oh, yeah," he says, sighing. "There is still a lot of catching up to do."

And the only way to do that, he says, is to move fast. Really, really fast. So earlier this month Klinsmann opened his first winter camp as coach of the U.S. national team with an eight-day stay at a state-of-the-art training facility in Phoenix, where players had their blood analyzed, their aerobic capacity measured, their strength tested and their eating habits digested — but rarely saw a soccer ball.

It's an admittedly European approach in which training days, part laboratory and part labor, last as long as 13 hours and encompass as many as three exhausting workouts. Yet it's one Klinsmann hopes will fundamentally redefine the way Americans play the game.

"We've had some pretty long days," Chivas USA defender Heath Pearce said. "It's all about trying to get game fitness. We're going to have heavy legs along the way, but we keep a perspective of what we're preparing for."

That, of course, would be World Cup qualifying, which begins in June — less than a year after Klinsmann was named to replace Bob Bradley as coach of the U.S. team. And that's another reason why he has everyone moving so fast.

"This is a different level," Klinsmann says of the international game. "Everything is done much faster. Not only do you have to make decisions fast, [you] have to think ahead. This is especially difficult for players here, where they come from a background where a lot of the next moves are being told to them. 'Oh, you pass here, pass there.'

"It's not working. The moment you go to a higher level you've got to think ahead. You've got to move into the space before the ball comes."

A high-scoring striker who won a World Cup and a European championship with Germany before coaching the country into the World Cup semifinals in 2006, the well-traveled Klinsmann wants to model the U.S. team after those he coached and played for in Europe. That means changing a philosophy often criticized as conservative and reactive for a fast, aggressive, freewheeling approach that pushes the action.

"Juergen definitely wants us to put more pressure, more emphasis in establishing our own style, our own speed," says midfielder Benny Feilhaber, the most experienced player in camp with 39 international caps. "There [are] big differences. It takes a lot of fitness. It takes being smart — knowing when to hold back because no team's going to be able to pressure for 90 minutes straight."

And those qualities — assertiveness, creativity, intelligence — also describe the national character, Feilhaber says.

"That's the American way: to be proactive and to go out and get what you want and make something for yourself," he says. "I think that's what [Klinsmann] is trying to get through."

He isn't relying solely on Americans to establish that American approach, though. Four of the 21 players in camp this month — including Feilhaber, a native of Brazil — were born outside the country. So were all three of his assistant coaches.

But then the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. So why can't it have a soccer team of immigrants — both in terms of birthplace and style of play? Call it an American revolution of sorts.

"It represents America in a global picture," says Klinsmann, who emigrated to the U.S. with his Chinese American wife, Debbie, in 1998. "It's really fun to see that because it gives a new dimension to our team. The style of play will reflect all the different elements that the players bring. But you've got to mold this whole thing."

That will take time. Which is why Klinsmann is also preaching a very un-American trait.

Patience.

Although he has won everywhere he has coached, Klinsmann is 3-4-1 after Saturday's 1-0 stoppage-time win over Venezuela — with just two more exhibitions scheduled before World Cup qualifying begins. That's probably not a fair measure, however, since 18 of the 21 players the U.S. brought to camp play in MLS, a league Klinsmann considers far below the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga and Italy's Serie A.

By June they'll be replaced by the likes of Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, who all are playing in Europe this winter.

"We are in a transition period," says Klinsmann, whose philosophy may nonetheless be taking root since the U.S. is riding a two-match win streak. "My only chance to kind of make that transition is every day I have them force that issue. Because one day we want to play with the best in the world.

"Do I want to win every game? Absolutely. But I also know that . . . I need to change their mental approach. I need to change their physical strength. I need to change their way of thinking. It's a lot of stuff."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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