GUATEMALA CITY — “He was always ahead of his time with everything he did.”
Those were the words of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Johan Cruyff, the Dutch soccer legend who died of lung cancer at 68 on Thursday. “As a player he was top three in the world, and as a coach, top three in the world,” said Klinsmann on the eve of the U.S.’s World Cup qualifier here against Guatemala (10 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports, NBC Universo). “It’s very sad news … I had the chance to meet him many times. Privately as well: I went to Barcelona to meet with him and got to know a little bit of his second passion about setting up an educational system for athletes.”
More than an athlete, Cruyff was also a great thinker, someone who reinvented the sport, soccer’s closet answer to Steve Jobs. He had Jobs’s crankiness and impatience, too, for those who couldn’t keep up, and Cruyff always, always, always spoke his mind. “He had a very strong opinion about things,” said Klinsmann with a laugh, “and I loved that too in him.”
Cruyff has left us now, but his vision and philosophy will hopefully live forever. You can see it in the way Barcelona—one of two clubs Cruyff revolutionized, along with Ajax—still plays every week. It’s a style that has admirers around the world, Klinsmann included.
“I think a lot of people share that [philosophy] with him,” Klinsmann said. “You want to see this type of game, where you set the tone, you control the game, you make it fast, you make it attractive and attacking. He’s always been famous for his version of the 4-3-3 with the wide wingers, all technically highly gifted and fast. This is his mark.”
“I played against him as a player [with Monaco] when he coached Barcelona and he demonstrated that style when he won the Champions League [in 1991–92]. We played them in the group stage and got second behind Barcelona. You could see his handwriting all over the place. Yes, you do admire it, you’d love to have that in your own way, but at the end of the day that gets translated by the players you have.”
“You don’t want to lose a person like him.”
Klinsmann had a few other newsworthy things to say in an hour-long roundtable with reporters here at the U.S. team hotel. Here are a few highlights:
• I asked Klinsmann why he brought John Brooks with the senior team instead of the Under-23 Olympic qualifying team this week considering he has several centerbacks who could play against Guatemala. “It’s simply priority list,” Klinsmann said. “The priority is the senior team, the priority is World Cup qualifying … We help [the U23s] wherever we can with players where I say they are now not my first-choice starting 11. I let Kellyn Acosta be there [with the U23s], I let Jordan Morris be there. But with my first-choice [players], John Brooks is my first choice and I’m not making a compromise. If [age-eligible DeAndre] Yedlin is my first choice at right winger I’m not making a compromise.”
• I also asked Klinsmann about who his options are at left back. “Option No. 1 is Edgar Castillo, and option No. 2 is one of the centerbacks, Michael Orozco or Ventura Alvarado, who can easily play at left back, no problem at all,” he said.
• Klinsmann still wants 17-year-old Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund to join the U.S. senior team in Columbus ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier if Pulisic’s sickness clears up. “He would have come in already earlier if he wasn’t sick,” Klinsmann said. “When he was sick, then we said we’re not announcing anything, let’s see how he’s doing. The club was all good either way. So the idea was just to give him a first smell of the senior group.” Playing in a World Cup qualifier would also cap-tie Pulisic to the United States. He has a Croatian passport and reportedly has received overtures from Croatia, but so far the Hershey, Pa., native has resolutely stayed with the U.S., including playing in the Under-17 World Cup for the Stars and Stripes.