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Juergen Klinsmann tries to globalize U.S. soccer

The German coach says he won't be afraid to have international influences as the Americans try to become competitive with world powers.

June 02, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • Coach Juergen Klinsmann takes the U.S. national team through a workout during a trip to Italy earlier this year.
Coach Juergen Klinsmann takes the U.S. national team through a workout… (Tanopress )

Siegfried Klinsmann was planning a future for his sons when he opened the doors to a three-story bakery in the hilly woodlands west of Stuttgart, Germany, in 1978.

"A father's dream is always that one of his sons carries on his business," says Juergen, the second of those four sons, who was 14 at the time.

Unfortunately for Siegfried, young Juergen had dreams of his own — and they tended more toward sport than strudel.

"I said 'I'm out,'" he remembers. " 'I'm going to go play soccer.' "

The two eventually hammered out a compromise. If Juergen got his baker's degree, his father would allow him to play professional soccer. More than three decades, one World Cup title and a European Championship later, the lessons of that episode still resonate for the younger Klinsmann:

Don't waver on your convictions. When you chart a course, stick to it. And whenever possible, challenge convention and authority.

Those core values are ones that Klinsmann, head coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team, figures to return to in his quest to remake the country's soccer program. In his first 10 months on the job he has already managed a rare trifecta, angering coaches, players and fans. But he also won converts when the U.S. national team reeled off five wins in a row, including a historic victory over Italy in Genoa, before losing last week to Brazil.

Now the real work begins. On Friday the U.S. plays Antigua in Tampa, Fla., followed by a June 12 match at Guatemala as it begins the third round of qualifying matches for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"The mechanism of soccer is results. It's extremely important for us what happens in World Cup qualifying," Klinsmann acknowledges. "Am I able to switch gears based on the challenge? But over the long term I also want to see a development of the game … to learn how to play with the best in the world."

Helping the U.S. catch up to the rest of the world is a challenge Klinsmann has been building toward for years. One of the world's premier strikers during a 17-year career, Klinsmann played in four countries — and made a point of immersing himself in the local lifestyle at each stop.

"I was almost fanatic about language and culture," says Klinsmann, who speaks five languages. "It changed my life. How I look at people changed completely from how I looked at people when I grew up in Germany. You learn to take people the way they are and not the way you want them to be."

That cosmopolitan viewpoint has proven invaluable to Klinsmann. He has became a student of coaches, learning soccer from the likes of Arsene Wenger (longtime Arsenal coach), Giovanni Trappatoni (former Italy coach) and Cesar Luis Menotti (ex-Argentina coach) and, since moving to the U.S. in 1998, debating philosophies with former USC football coach Pete Carroll, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson and Duke basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Klinsmann recently took that curiosity to Brazil, where he attended an international coaching clinic.

"I need to figure out how they think," says Klinsmann, who turns 48 next month. "That's my competition in the World Cup. I need to figure out how does Brazil function. How does Spain function? How does Italy do it? How can I make a difference with my guys?

"So I have to find great resources here in this country, but I also have to find great resources around the world because it's a global game."

That's a theme Klinsmann comes back to frequently. While the U.S. celebrates diversity in many aspects of daily life, it has long been provincial and isolationist when it comes to the national soccer team. And that, Klinsmann says, has kept the U.S. from closing the considerable gap separating it from world powers such as Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Germany.

"Klinsmann understands when we've tried to Americanize our game, we're on the wrong schedule," says Eric Wynalda, a former U.S. national team striker and the first American to play in Germany's Bundesliga. Major League Soccer starts their "games in March and then we question ourselves. Why did our Olympic team not qualify? Because our guys have been practicing for months. Their guys have been playing games."

More important than changing the calendar of U.S. soccer, though, is changing both the playing style and mentality of the players.

Under Bob Bradley, who had the second-highest winning percentage of any U.S. coach in history, the Americans played a reactive, counter-attacking game — one Klinsmann has dumped in favor of a dynamic, aggressive approach. He has also introduced exhausting European-style training camps and has filled his roster with American players from German, English, Italian and Mexican clubs.

From that collision of competing styles a uniquely American method will emerge, Klinsmann believes.

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