After a World Cup performance that exceeded most neutrals’ expectations, the USA’s 2014 is headed for a somewhat discordant ending in Dublin Jürgen Klinsmann continues to reshape his squad with his national team hat on, while struggling to contain an increasing sense of factionalism and resentment about how he wears his other hat as technical director of US Soccer.
The first part of the job is challenging enough, though his team will be helped slightly by the absence of Robbie Keane for the Republic of Ireland. Keane is in fact on his way back to the US to play his part in the climax to the season, competing for a third MLS Cup in four years.
MLS is a sore spot when it comes to the second part of Klinsmann’s remit, as technical director of the federation. Last month, the MLS commissioner Don Garber and the high-profile national team players who had chosen to return and play in it, as disrespectful, and demanded he stop.
What seemed like a bizarre emotional outburst at the time was, of course, nothing of the sort, with it being apparent that Garber was speaking for the 19-strong MLS ownership board. At that moment, it seemed the owners were pushing back to protect the value of marquee US nationals who had elected to return to the league – most on lucrative contracts inflated by their national team performances, natch. Klinsmann famously did little to hide his displeasure, nor his belief that said performances were likely to diminish for players like Michael Bradley, who were swapping European competition for the closed shop of American domestic soccer.
But in the last week, as more details have emerged of Klinsmann’s operations as technical director, the problem has seemed to be one not of marquee player devaluation, but at the grassroots level, where the owners have been investing in academies – only to find, they claim, that Klinsmann and his team have been encouraging young players away from the MLS sides and encouraging them to sign for teams in Europe.
claimed that Klinsmann’s involvement had gone further – extending to influencing choice of agents and rehab regimes for young players, but whatever the extent of his interference, it’s been enough to rankle with the MLS top brass, whose structure is built around control. The idea of a US coach working to loosen that control in the name of his belief in the virtues of not just global soccer technical standards, but the global soccer market, is particularly difficult for the league to stomach, and some owners have warned privately that they may consider withdrawing funding for their teams’ academies if Klinsmann continues to, as they see it, undermine them.
Watching all this with interest are the college coaches and administrators and upstart leagues like the NASL, each of whom have their own agendas that make them more or less amenable to the Klinsmann project. Even the Mexican Federation, which shares a marketing arm with US Soccer, have an interest in how successfully grassroots development functions in the country – not least since at federation and club level they have long since opened competitive fronts for young Mexican American talent.
What all this means for the Ireland game is an oddly charged sense of backstory for some of the newer names on the team, that’s distinct from how the team itself is changing in the post-World Cup era. Greg Garza is both a potential replacement for DaMarcus Beasley and emblematic of a tendency developing in the Mexican leagues (he plays for FC Tijuana). Jordan Morris is an exciting young forward, but equally interesting when the prospects of the Stanford student and Seattle prospect are considered in the context of the reported advice about his career given Klinsmann and his advisers. Ditto Miguel Ibarra — who, as an NASL player, represents another reminder to MLS from Klinsmann that he will find and encourage talent wherever he wants.
Politics aside, Klinsmann is looking ahead to next year’s Gold Cup as the first competition in what will be an increasingly hectic competitive schedule leading up to the World Cup in Russia. And if last week’s friendly loss against Colombia was part of his campaign to forge his team’s character by the toughest possible of tests, the Ireland game should allow for one or two more personnel experiments in a few different positions. Ideally that would have included a longer look for New England’s Lee Nguyen, who got the briefest of substitute cameos last Friday, but almost seized the initiative with a single flick of his boot that opened up the Colombian defense. But Nguyen, like Keane, and indeed Jermaine Jones and DeAndre Yedlin, has returned to the US for MLS playoff duty.
Rubio Rubin too, showed few nerves on his first start, and got into a couple of dangerous positions for headers playing upfront alongside Jozy Altidore. The young Utrecht striker did enough to suggest he’s worth another look soon.
Others, too, are on the bubble and may get their chance tonight. For Klinsmann, encouraging and assessing players from the sidelines, those 90 minutes may represent some relief in an increasingly complicated existence. In that time at least his priorities are clear.
GOALKEEPERS (4): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Greg Garza (Club Tijuana), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Hamburg), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United FC), Jordan Morris (Stanford), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)