Jurgen Klinsmann took over the USA reins three-and-a-half years ago promising change. He threw around buzzwords like “proactive” and “reactive,” but he did not stop there. “Maybe we can find someone kicking a ball around the streets,” he told FIFA.com. “Maybe there’s a Messi hiding somewhere here in the States. Who knows?"
It was more than just a provocative sound byte. The former Germany striker intended to look under every rock, in every dusty corner, for overlooked American talent. Who is to say there might not just be a hidden Messi – or some similar gem not quite as precious – in the Untied States' 10,000,000 square miles?
In a country with a population of more than 300,000,000, Klinsmann is keen to put his finger on players with more than just a capacity for hard-work and graft, more than just the honest strivers that have defined American soccer team for the last decades.
“We need to dig for more,” Klinsmann said, staying on message over his years in charge. He wanted to show his big words were more than just soft rhetoric. “We’re looking for players everywhere. There's definitely talent in the US that's not being tapped. We're trying to get our heads and hands around that.”
Lower leagues and University fields
Klinsmann has called on a staggering number of players in his time in charge of the Stars and Stripes. He is always searching. Never satisfied. Two players, in particular, speak to the coach’s desire to overturn any and all obstacles in his search. Miguel Ibarra is a pest of a striker with a nose for the danger zones. Twice Klinsmann called him into camp since the Americans reached the FIFA World Cup™ Round of 16 in Brazil this summer. It did not bother the German one bit that Ibarra is not even playing his football in Major League Soccer, the country’s top flight, but rather in the recently re-formed North American Soccer League, which is effectively the national second division.
“He’s a good example that there are different ways to get all the way to the top,” Klinsmann said about the Minnesota United FC forward and his decision to call in a non-MLS domestic player for the first time since 2005. The coach, animated and demanding of his players in training, did something similar when he called on Jordan Morris, a second-year student-athlete at Stanford University. He became the first collegian called into a USA camp since 1995, a time when there was no major domestic league in the country.
“We evaluate people based on their potential, based on talent and their willingness to learn,” Klinsmann remarked of Morris, who, in order not to jeopardise his status as an amateur, had to turn down the stipend given to the rest of his mates in camp. “Sometimes people think it’s coming a bit too early for a player like Morris who still plays in college, but we don’t think so because we see the potential.”
Klinsmann now wears two hats for the United States Soccer Federation. He is not only the nation’s top coach but also American soccer’s technical director. He is in charge of guiding the country’s football into a new and bright future. Some might say the two positions are at odds. One is about cold, hard results and the other is more nebulous in its concerns.
Klinssmann's way or the highway
One thing is certain: Klinsmann is doing things his own way. He’s attacked the quality of play in Major League Soccer and left Landon Donovan, the country’s top player for over a decade, off the team for Brazil 2014. He included an unheralded youngster, Julian Green, in that same team. He has played head games with all of his big stars – sending stressful messages to the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. No one is safe. There are no sacred cows.
The blond and likable manager has turned to naturalised Americans with roots all over Europe, like Norway, Iceland and Germany. He has opened the door for aging players like Chris Wondolowski and Kyle Beckerman, who looked to have missed their chance at national team glory.
Klinsmann even turned renowned attacker DaMarcus Beasley into a defender at this summer’s World Cup. The coach preaches Yoga and denounces hamburgers, once asking a journalist: “You wouldn’t put diesel fuel in your Ferrari, would you?”
The latest in Klinsmann’s overhaul is a proposed expansion of the country’s developmental and youth programmes. He wants to see players earlier, younger. He wants a network of coaches with eyes and ears everywhere, under more rocks and sniffing in more dusty corners.
Whether any of this will unearth the mythical American Messi remains doubtful. But listening to Klinsmann makes you think: it's possible. “We want to push the game higher,” he said, publicly targeting a semi-final place at Russia 2018. “We want to play with the best in the world.”