Monday, August 1, 2011

Klinsmann - New USMNT Head Coach

As expected, Klinsmann was named the new head coach on Friday, just one day after Bob Bradley was surprisingly relieved of his duties.  Initially, I was also surprised that Klinsmann was still the preferred replacement, especially after what seemed to be an unhappy conclusion to negotiations with Gulati after WC 2010.  Klinsmann came out afterwards and said that the USSF president refused to put on paper what he had promised in person.  We all speculated that it was likely about how much control Klinsmann would be given.  But when Grant Wahl conveyed immediately after Bradley's firing that the new hire would not be a surprise, his identity was obvious.

In his press conference, Klinsmann didn't spend much time talking about the state of the current men's team, or even how the squad should specifically improve after losing to Mexico in the Gold Cup Final.  In fact, he simply said that there wasn't "anything wrong with the team".  Hmm.  Instead, he spent a lot of time talking about the development of soccer in the United States on the whole, how developing young players in the US system is unique from the rest of the world, and how much he still wants and needs to learn.  He also said that he would not be selecting permanent assistant coaches immediately but was open to essentially auditioning different soccer minds in the US.  Hmm.

This as a followup, if you remember, to his comments last summer as an in-studio ESPN analyst for the WC, when Klinsmann famously said that the US system for developing players was upside-down - that only in the US will parents pay for their youth to play on teams, hoping for eventual college scholarships.  Subsequently, Klinsmann also seemed to say that since the US system inherently fast-tracked youth whose parents could afford to pay, US Soccer was missing out on the talent from the inner city and poor.  Thirdly, he hypothesized that developing technique, especially a great first touch, comes from endless hours of pickup games and other non-organized (coached) activity, which is lacking in the US, as opposed to a sport like basketball which especially flourishes in the inner city. 

All of this sounds great.  This country needs someone with the highest level of experience in the football world who also understands the US environment from bottom up.  We've never had a coach with the grand vision with the end goal of systematic change that he does.  He seems to be perfect for US Soccer.  But for the position of Technical Director, not Head Coach.  Bradley was fired because he lost to Mexico at the end of a stagnant and mediocre year.  The senior team is not playing well at all.  Fixing this must be his top priority.

What Klinsmann is envisioning and describing is possibly a 10 to 20 year process.  He is talking about revolutionizing how we identify, then develop our players.  Remember, this isn't a small European country where it is much more possible to implement wholesale changes quickly.  No, we are talking about the 50 States of America, with countless different cultures and economic situations over a huge land mass.  It doesn't help that we do not identify ourselves as a soccer country, nor is our national pride at stake when it comes to our soccer team.  This is an enormous task, but Klinsmann only has a 3 year contract.  In addition to all this, Klinsmann isn't known for his tactics or game preparation.  Apparently, as coach of Germany in 2004-06, he left that all to Jogi Low, the current German coach.

So, all that to say, I was hoping Klinsmann had a detailed plan of what he wanted to accomplish immediately.  I wanted him to come in with assistant coaches in tow, especially one with a tactical mind.  I wanted him to be in execution mode, not in the research stage.  I wanted him to install what his vision of our team identity would be and how we would play.  I wanted him to know which players who are currently out of the US Soccer fold will be invited in now (and which will be ousted).  Perhaps he IS ready.  Time will tell.

One thing he mentioned in the presser of great interest to me was that he thought that our country's overall mentality toward success is a proactive approach, not a reactive one.  Basically, he observed that we as a nation would prefer to risk and attack, not sit back and defend.  Should he follow through on this, it would represent a major shift in US soccer philosophy, especially from Bob Bradley's regime.  In the end, we will find out if we play the way we play purely because of our personnel's skill set, or because of a coach's (or an entrenched system's) mentality.  Perhaps it is both, intertwined from the beginning all the way from the youth level.

Anyway, these are the tangible team goals that I think Klinsmann must accomplish this cycle.  You know Bob Bradley knew full well what his aim was.

1) Beat Mexico at home in qualifying. - Klinsmann needs to understand how important this rivalry is to US Soccer.

2) Win the 2013 Gold Cup.- Even though Mexico won't bring their A team (and neither will we), we can't let them take our regional championship 3 straight times.

3) Finish 1st in Concacaf Qualifying. - Bradley did it, so must Klinsmann.  Fortunately, our path to Brazil 2014 is fairly easy and it probably allows him to do a little more experimenting with younger players.  However, Bradley finished first, he should too.

4) Reach knockout rounds in WC, preferably at least the quarterfinals.  - It would be one step beyond Bradley.  We haven't been that far since Bruce Arena did in 2002.

USMNT Big Picture Goals

1) Refresh our team with young talent - especially defensively and at striker.

2) Choose more technical players and plan to hold more possession. - Perhaps call in players like a Jose Torres, who has not received a call-up since his ill-fated 1st half vs Slovenia in WC 2010.

3) Establish our team's new identity. - One of the most interesting things to see is whether he continues to deploy what US fans deride as the empty bucket - two central defensive midfielders.  Since Klinsmann was a striker, I'm guessing he'd prefer to play a 4-4-2, with one def central midfielder and one creative playmaker under the forwards.  However, with the lack of proven talent at forward, he may instead opt for a 4-5-1.

The last matter of interest is whether Michael Bradley will keep his starting spot.  Already unfairly accused of nepotism, Bradley's reputation will be greatly improved if Klinsmann re-installs him at defensive midfield.  I have no predictions on this, or really on what effect Klinsmann will have on the entire team.  I definitely welcome the change that he brings, but he better be in the knockout rounds of Brazil 2014 with Mexico's scalp tucked into his belt along the way.

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