U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann has repeatedly expressed his desire for U.S players to compete at the highest level possible. (Alex Silva/AP)
NEW YORK -- If it can be measured or tested, Jurgen Klinsmann has measured and tested it. From strength and agility to VO2 max, pattern recognition, sleep and caloric intake, U.S. national team players have been subjected to an unprecedented amount of quantitative analysis under their thorough and ambitious coach.
As Klinsmann has claimed repeatedly over the past two-plus years, it’s all designed to help forge players who can compete at soccer's highest level.
"You can only get better and get closer to the best in the world if you do more than them," he has said.
But what about an athlete’s intangibles? What about heart, resilience and commitment? Klinsmann insists they’re just as crucial, especially when the games matter most.
"Confidence, at the end of the day, plays a vital role," he said a few months into his tenure. "You go into a World Cup and we’re 50/50 with an opponent, the only thing that matters is who’s stronger mentally. Who wants it more? Who’s hungrier?"
Mental strength and hunger may not be scientific, but Klinsmann thinks they can be gauged as well, at least intuitively. He pays acute attention to approach and attitude. He prefers players who are eager to embrace a new challenge and desperate to get better. That requires steadfast belief and it is there, in that more delicate part of an elite athlete’s constitution, that Klinsmann has found the American player wanting.
The manager expressed his concern in a recent interview with ESPN while discussing the lack of U.S. impact at major clubs in Europe.
"It needs to take the U.S. team in a World Cup to go into at least a quarterfinal, if not a semifinal, to give more credibility to American players," he said. "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?
"Because you go into a European top club and if you want to play in the top five, six teams in England or Germany or Italy, you have 15, 16, 17 national team players on the roster. So you have to kick somebody out. I think the American player still doesn’t have this last belief that they can kick somebody out. This is something that they have to build … My wish is that maybe after the World Cup we get Jozy Altidore, our No. 9, into a Champions League team or Tim Howard becomes goalkeeper of a big team. We have good players, but we don’t have the belief yet that we belong in there."
Klinsmann often challenges his charges. He reminds them that they must be constantly striving, never resting on their laurels. Clint Dempsey may have been a hero back home for his exploits at Fulham, but Klinsmann famously reminded everyone in January 2013 that Dempsey “hasn’t made s***.” Klinsmann told The Wall Street Journal, “You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you can play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team. There is always another level.”
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Dempsey, of course, did join a club with Champions League ambition. He spent the 2012-13 season at Tottenham Hotspur. But an increasing sense that he'd soon be surplus at White Hart Lane, not to mention a remarkably lucrative offer from the Seattle Sounders, led to Dempsey’s MLS return last summer. Now Michael Bradley is back as well, along with Maurice Edu, Michael Parkhurst and Clarence Goodson. Meanwhile players like Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi all re-upped with their MLS clubs, leaving Klinsmann to wonder where their ambitions genuinely lie.
Last week, as many of those players gathered in New York City (and Red Bull Arena) as part of an MLS media and marketing tour, Klinsmann’s comments and the league’s influx of national team players dominated the conversation. Not surprisingly, the athletes had a different take on the situation.
“I actually see it a little bit the opposite,” Donovan told SI.com. “I think our best attribute over the years has been our belief in what we can do. We've won a lot of soccer games because we believe we can win, and I think most countries around the world would say the one thing they hate most about playing the Americans is our spirit and the way we do things. We've beaten the Brazils, Argentinas, Germanys, teams like that -- that in some circumstances we had no business competing with, when you just look at the value of [our] players versus some of their players -- we shouldn't be on the same field. But we believe in ourselves and we believe we can win and that's what I love about playing for this team is we always have that belief and I think we always will.”
In an SI.com interview last year, Gonzalez even credited Klinsmann with instilling some of that belief.
“I can’t speak for how it was before, but from my experience he does give us the sense we can play with everyone on the field and if we show up with the right intensity — he really preaches that, that we have to show up – that if we show up we can win,” the defender said.
If the belief shines through when wearing a U.S. jersey, does it somehow fade away for players at foreign clubs?
“There’s no doubt that as Americans we continue to have to fight for respect and we have to continue to show that we have teams and players who can play at he highest level,” said Bradley, who spent eight years in Europe.
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On SI Now, U.S. national team star Landon Donovan discusses how U.S. players have been and continue to be full of belief despite recent critical comments from manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
“You would have hoped that now, what’s gone on, whether it’s MLS or the national team or whether it’s certain individuals over the past 10, 15, 20, years would have done more for us. But the reality is, at the moment, there’s still a little of a feeling that now if [a European club] can have an American or an Argentine, you’re taking the Argentine. That’s something people can look at that as feeling sorry for yourself but for me, that’s reality.”
When asked if U.S. players lacked motivation or belief, Bradley shook his head and said, "No," simply and emphatically.
"When I was at [Bayer] Leverkusen in the beginning, when you're a young kid there you're one of 50 or 100 young kids that they're hoping pans out," Donovan said. "And guess what? If it's time to play for the reserve team or the first team and you're at this level and another German player is at [the same] level, the German player is getting the chance. That's just the way it goes. That's the way it should be ... I'm not saying that's an excuse as to why we haven't had more players play in Champions League, but that's definitely part of it."
Edu signed with the Philadelphia Union after failing to secure playing time at Stoke City. The midfielder spent more than five years in Europe and won three Scottish Premier League titles at Rangers.
“From the beginning of when I went over to Europe, the perception of how Americans are viewed over there has slightly changed. It hasn’t changed dramatically,” he said. “But in saying that, we are still viewed as Americans. ‘This isn’t your first sport. You guys play basketball. You guys play baseball. But soccer? Football? Really?’ It’s always going to be a battle going over to Europe. You have to have that mentality going into it, it’s going to be a fight and it’s going to be a grind. Sometimes that might play a factor in coach’s decision. He might view a player from Argentina or Brazil [differently].”
Such talk probably sounds defeatist to Klinsmann, who won a World Cup and European Championship with Germany and starred for the likes of Tottenham, Bayern Munich and Inter Milan.
But it seems to feel like reality for American players. Dempsey, who Donovan once described as having a “crazy hunger to succeed,” has spoken openly about the frustration he faced each time he was benched by a new manager at Fulham. He’d prove himself, earn his way back into the starting 11, score goals and then have to start from scratch again. And that was Fulham. Getting the benefit of the doubt at a club like Spurs or Roma is even tougher.
It’s a complex issue, and each individual player’s situation is different. Edu played in the Champions League with Rangers, DaMarcus Beasley with PSV Eindhoven and Sacha Kljestan has gotten a taste at Anderlecht. But those clubs aren’t among European soccer’s royalty, at least not anymore. For now, despite all the progress made over the past two decades, U.S. players remain on the wrong side of the velvet rope.
Of course, American players still may not be good enough technically, but that's not what Klinsmann was claiming.
“If you’re European, you’re going to have more chances to break through with a European team if you’re already there,” Thierry Henry said at Red Bull Arena, searching for the gray area. “Clint Dempsey was doing well at Fulham, then had the chance to break into the top five [with Spurs] … You had a lot of nationalities in that team. It’s just the way it was.”
The former Barcelona and Arsenal star continued, “It’s not an easy one. I speak to some of the guys sometimes. You just can’t go to Europe and say ‘Hey, I’m here.’”
Henry offered ample credit to MLS for bringing the best American players home. Bradley and Dempsey are each earning some $6 million per year. In an ironic twist, they now might be overvalued because of their nationality. Neither could be expected to turn down that kind of money, given their options. The choice often comes down to grinding for a mid-to-lower table outfit in England, Italy or Germany or coming home, getting rich and acting as a leader for a growing MLS club.
If they did lack belief as Klinsmann suggested, if they're in MLS rather than the Champions League because they were missing some key intangible, it’s not because of something absent in their character. It comes from a lingering perception that there may be a glass ceiling abroad, and that shattering it will take more time and strength then they could muster at this juncture of their career.
That breakthrough will require a collective, generational effort. The players who returned to MLS from Europe did their part. Like most professionals, they value stability as well as glory. Hunger can be sated in different ways, and there's plenty left to accomplish. MLS has a long way to go. It’s not crazy to suggest that the momentum generated by the commitment made by Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan and their compatriots might lift the league to new heights. They're in position to lead. Perhaps they'll inspire more American kids to dedicate themselves to soccer. Perhaps one of those kids will grow up and win the Champions League.