By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 12, 2014) US Soccer Players - He did it again. USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann is the master of saying something pointed without really pointing to anyone in particular. This time, he used his broad brush to paint American players as “lacking belief” in the drive to be among the best players in the world via a recent television appearance. According to Klinsmann’s wisdom, too often American players head to the world’s foremost footballing continent just hoping to catch on, selling themselves short in the process.
"But it’s also the American players when they go to Europe to prove that they can be big players in Europe. So it’s also down to do they have the belief? They have the qualities, but do they have the belief?
There’s much to unpack here, as there usually is when Klinsmann decided to speak in non-specific terms. Klinsmann’s messages are never simply indirect criticisms of the players we all assume he’s referencing. Discussions about how the current status (again, in non-specific terms) of American players, in those places where the sport is most celebrated, speaks to the game’s growth in the United States. When Klinsmann talks like this, he’s using current events to address to a long-term future. It’s partly about where Americans are playing right at this moment, but it’s more about Klinsmann’s desire to push and prod an entire culture in the direction he deems necessary.
Therein lies the duality of Klinsmann’s stewardship of the USMNT. As evidenced by his speaking more about these issues in three years on the job than his two predecessors did in thirteen, Klinsmann’s basic setting is one of both coach and architect. Where coaches before him spent most of their time maximizing the talents of the players available to them in their respective window of time, the better to win as much as possible, Klinsmann concerns himself with big picture issues well beyond the normal scope of USMNT head coach.
To that point, most of the rhetoric Klinsmann uses is in the future tense. Yes, he’s making vague reference to current examples of Americans who chose a different route than sticking it out in Europe. Yet, his underlying message is more about the example they set for younger players than it is commentary on their ability to help the USMNT.
Klinsmann manages to talk around these issues in a manner that is neither right nor wrong. In a way, it’s slightly dishonest, because he refuses to commit to the simple task of saying what he means. Instead, he dances around difficult topics, allowing subjective space between “criticism” and “motivation.” It means it’s maddening to attempt to figure out just what he means. Then again, he probably likes it that way.
Because he talks in such abstract terms so often, it’s difficult to even say Klinsmann is being inconsistent when he makes comments that would otherwise contradict his previous statements. Case in point, an interview with the USMNT boss at FIFA.com, wherein Klinsmann lauds the “American mentality.”
“The American mentality is really very impressive. They always want to be first. They know they haven’t made it in terms of football just yet but they’re making their way.”
How do we reconcile “American players don’t have belief” with “[Americans] always want to be first? Does Klinsmann believe the collective mentality of Americans is somehow separate and different from the individual mentality of soccer players born and raised in the United States? It’s true that the USMNT has typically been greater than the sum of its parts. Does that mean Klinsmann thinks American players change mindsets the moment they pull on a jersey with “USA” emblazoned on it? How can Americans be both collectively ambitious and full of individual doubt at the same time?
The wrinkle in Klinsmann’s comments on lack of American belief is his subtle intimation that part of the problem lies at the feet of European clubs. Perhaps American players go off to Europe full of vim and vigor, only to find themselves cowed by an environment that punishes them for their origins. Again, Klinsmann is couching his criticisms inside of broader comment on the place of the United States in the soccer world. Americans players lack belief, not talent. Inherent in that assessment is a suggesting European clubs should be more open to employing said talent.
Klinsmann says many things. A large portion of those things are indirect enough for the audience not to be sure he really said anything at all.
There’s no way to get around the truth that Klinsmann’s words carry weight. He’s the USMNT head coach, after all, and the highest paid coach to ever hold the position. He has a rich European pedigree that provides him a platform (rightly or wrongly) to speak about concepts rarely broached by his predecessors. His hiring wasn’t just about winning games, but changing a culture. Part of that process is speaking, at nearly every turn, about things like “belief” and “mentality.” Because of that, his balancing act between the practical and the theoretical will forever confound for an audience that can hardly stop listening.
In basic terms, Klinsmann clearly sees the UEFA Champions League as the pinnacle of a playing career. He wants more Americans in that competition. Is that because it will make the current roster of American players better? Or because, in a not-so-distant future, those player can serve as motivation for the players coming through the ranks behind them? He wants Americans to believe they can be the best, but can simple belief help them break through the barriers long put up by a soccer world uncomfortable with the very idea of a top quality American player.
When it comes to Jurgen Klinsmann, maybe the answers aren’t the point. It’s the act of placing of the ideas into the world that matter.
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