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Klinsmann era begins with focus on U.S. youth development system

By Charles Boehm

Few U.S. soccer coaches have ever prompted the levels of curiosity and anticipation swirling ahead of Jurgen Klinsmann’s first appearance as head coach of the U.S. Men’s National Team in New York City on Monday. And though he kept mostly to generalities in his remarks during the day’s two media events, the German-born Californian gave ample signs of meaningful – and intriguing – differences from his predecessor Bob Bradley.

Unveiled at a morning press conference alongside U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati at the New York branch of a prominent U.S. Soccer sponsor and equipment provider, Klinsmann gave food for thought to fans and observers of the USMNT and the nation’s soccer scene in general.

“When you come into a situation like this, you analyze every individual player, the team itself and the program, which I’ll have the chance to do during the next couple of weeks, to see how I can develop them further. You build on what was built before, and if you look back on the past 20 years in this country, a lot has been built,” he said. “It’s come a long way, soccer in the United States. I’m now getting this opportunity to move it further. We can build on what has been built by Bob [Bradley] in the last five years, and before that by Bruce Arena and Steve Sampson and so on. I’m proud to get that opportunity.”

A legendary goalscorer during his long, successful playing career with the German National Team and a host of clubs at the top echelons of European club soccer, Klinsmann settled in Southern California after retiring. He’s picked up plenty about the domestic soccer landscape in the ensuing decade and even played in the USL’s Premier Development League as a 39-year-old, scoring five goals for the Orange County Blue Stars under an assumed name, though this is his first coaching job in the U.S.

Having pursued him at varying degrees of intensity over the past five years, Gulati clearly believes the 47-year-old from Göppingen, Germany is the perfect leader for a program in need of direction and ambition.

“Today is a very important day and perhaps the start of a new era for us. We’re extraordinarily excited about having Jurgen Klinsmann join our team, to lead our team and to help lead our technical program,” said Gulati. “Jurgen’s experience, both as a player and coach, and as a resident of this country – and I think all three of those are important – we think are huge assets.

“The latter solves whatever we think about having an international coach, and whether they’ll know America, and know the difference between Duke [University] and the Portland Timbers, and all the things that are specific to the U.S., like the role of education, geography and so on. Jurgen has that.”

Speaking with a more philosophical tone and at far greater length than any Bradley press event in recent memory, Klinsmann delved into big-picture topics that many would consider the realm of a technical director or youth system chief rather than the coach of the senior team.

“It is important to understand your culture and how you grow up and where your emotions and priorities are,” he said. “It took me years to understand how important this whole educational path for people is in this country. I never got it the first couple of years, and I said, ‘Why is the program really not that important to people, and why is it always about where you are going to college? What’s the high school? Where are your kids going to school?’ I always responded, ‘My kids are going to school at the next closest school. What’s the big deal?’

“Over the years, I saw that those are the reasons why you think that way and it’s because it’s a completely different setup. It’s important that I know all those things, and it’s important when a foreign coach comes in, he gets the time to understand all those mechanisms. You always have to consider the different people in different roles.”

Klinsmann has been critical of the American system in the past, using the phrase “upside-down pyramid” to describe the convoluted system of multiple school-, club- and federation-based competitions which so many have now deemed insufficiently effective in the wake of recent stagnation and underachivement in international competition. But on Monday he was diplomatic, pledging to gather information from a variety of sources and take a long-term approach to improving the national team.

“Studying your culture and having an American wife and American kids, mainly right now my understanding is that you don’t like to react to what other people do. I think this is maybe a starting point,” said Klinsmann when asked about the team’s playing style. “I think America always likes to decide on its own what is next. This guides maybe towards a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent, instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it.

“So I’m really curious to hear all the different opinions out there.”

He also made a few unconventional announcements. Stating that he will take his time in hiring a coaching staff, Klinsmann floated the idea of bringing in “guest assistant coaches” from MLS, college soccer and beyond as he works to “understand what’s out there” in American soccer. He did express a high regard for Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos, the former USMNT stars now working within the U.S. youth coaching system who he plans to liaise with, prompting early speculation about their possible involvement with Klinsmann’s staff.

The team faces rivals Mexico in an international friendly in Philadelphia in just eight days’ time. But on Monday there was little discussion about the players being selected for that rematch of the Yanks’4-2 Gold Cup final loss to El Tri, the result that probably sealed Bradley’s fate.

“My guess is we’ll see players everyone is familiar with,” said Gulati on the topic.