Jürgen Klinsmann is a popular man, the subject of major profiles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. The biggest bit of “news” here is that Klinsmann told the Times back in December that the U.S. wasn’t going to win the World Cup. While it may sound like blasphemy for a coach to admit such a thing, the German was stating the obvious. In its assessment of the Brazil odds, Goldman Sachs gave the U.S. a 0.5 percent chance of winning this World Cup, just slightly better than overachieving minnows Ecuador and Switzerland and slightly worse than global upstarts Belgium and Colombia. With Portugal, Ghana, and Germany looming in this tournament’s most murderous Group of Death, even getting out of the first round seems like a stretch.
The bigger picture that the Times, WSJ, and New Yorker all captured was that Klinsmann is trying to remake the national team and create a coherent style of play that is both attacking and attractive to watch.
These articles were framed differently—the Times’ title was “How Jurgen Klinsmann Plans to Make U.S. Soccer Better (and Less American),” and the WSJ’s headline was “Soccer, Made in America”—but the ideas were exactly the same. And it’s the same theme that Klinsmann has been harping on since he took over as U.S. coach in 2011. He wants to turn American soccer into a sport where the athletes are as successful, famous, and scrutinized as players are in Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NFL, or England’s Premier League. In this way he wants to “Europeanize” soccer, a phrase used in the New Yorker essay and an idea repeated in the Times.
This is not about turning us into a nation of baguette-toting socialists, though. Klinsmann also doesn’t want the U.S. national team to become a bunch of sambaing Brazilians or tiki-taka-playing Spaniards. Rather, he says he hopes to foster a distinctly American playing style. Here’s how he summarized his plan to The New Yorker:
“It has to be our goal to develop a style in which Americans will recognize themselves,” he says. “They have to be in front of the television and say, ‘Yes, that’s my team.’ ” … Klinsmann believes that the team’s playing style will eventually resemble something like the country’s assertive entrepreneurial culture. “Americans are proactive,” he tells me. “You want to be world leaders in everything you do. So, on the field, you shouldn’t just sit back and wait.”
If this sounds at once noble and overly ambitious, that’s because in the immediate term it probably is. The problem with the Klinsmann project heading into this World Cup is that—as the coach acknowledges—we don’t yet have the personnel or the culture to make the breakthrough. For the past couple of years, Klinsmann has been attempting to will the U.S. national team into becoming a dangerous, creative attacking side. As Brian Phillips put it two years ago in an article for Grantland, Klinsmann is trying to create the “possibility that we could play like a great team simply by deciding we are one.” Phillips skeptically, but hopefully, describes this as the quintessential American dream.
The dream is still that. The team’s backline has been completely unsettled in the buildup to Brazil, while starting striker Jozy Altidore has scored just three goals in his last 49 appearances for club and country. Behind a thin first team with a couple of big stars are a series of aging MLS players and inexperienced youngsters. That explains why Klinsmann is managing expectations before the World Cup by saying that the Americans won’t win. He has a contract through 2018 and a mandate to transform U.S. soccer, so a difficult 2014 World Cup likely won’t do him in. (An absolutely catastrophic World Cup could be another story, though.)
But will this push to transform U.S. soccer work in 2018? 2022? Any year, ever?
There are three key ingredients to developing a national playing style. First, a style must emerge from a distinct national culture. As described in David Winner’s Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Soccer, the much-bemoaned but at times successful grinding, unsexy English style of play came out of Victorian cultural mores and muddy English pitches. Winner also has an excellent description of how post-World War II Italian culture shaped the national soccer team: “[Italy’s] rapid industrialization and a fairly benign but corrupt centrist democracy ushered in not merely wealth but a new, distinctively Italian style of football: ruthless, highly disciplined, and based on defense—catenaccio.” Most famously, Brazil’s samba soccer culture treats the sport as a national art form.
The second ingredient is a star talisman. This was the case with Franz Beckenbauer’s libero-led German team and Holland’s total football, invented by Dutch midfield legend Johan Cruyff. Very rarely, that talisman can be a manager. This was the case with Spain’s tiki-taka style, developed by Barcelona club players and eventually managers Pep Guardiola and, again, Cruyff. (“Cruyff painted the chapel, and subsequent coaches must merely restore and improve it,” is how soccer journalist Simon Kuper described Guardiola’s view of the work the two men did in forming what would become tiki-taka.)
That leads to the third factor: a functional development system that can crank out not just the occasional star, but enough top-level talent to fill a full 23-man roster. This is the other thing that made tiki-taka possible: It was forged in the famous development academy of Barcelona’s La Masia, a school that gave the world three of the most beautiful players of the past decade in Argentina’s Messi and Spain’s Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. But La Masia also gave Spain crucial role players that formed the backbone of its 2010 World Cup-winning team, including Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, and Pedro.
Klinsmann seems to understand all this. It’s why he talks obsessively about team leadership and America’s stars doing more to establish themselves in the world’s top clubs. It’s why he has insisted on being able to take the reins of the development program and is able to speak intelligently and passionately about efforts to revamp it into a more professional, more European model. And it’s why he talks about giving the American soccer fan on the couch something distinctively American to cheer for.
It’s this last part that seems like the biggest stretch. While all of these countries have modified their styles over the years, the evolutions required some initial philosophical base—a base that the U.S doesn’t really have. “Americans are proactive” isn’t quite enough, nor is the team’s historical pattern of playing very physically, working really hard on defense, and trying to nip a late winner. What Klinsmann needs first, and what he’s attempting to build, is the farm system. Perhaps a player can emerge in four, or eight, or 12 years, who will become the American Cruyff. If and when that happens, it will be a huge moment for U.S. soccer. And more than likely, Klinsmann won’t be managing the team.