After what he perceived as an attack on his league, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber hit back at U.S. men's national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s comments this week regarding MLS’ level of play and its players, saying they were "damaging" and "detrimental."
"I feel very strongly ... that Jurgen's comments are very, very detrimental to the league," Garber said in a media conference call Wednesday. "They're detrimental to the sport of soccer in America ... and not only are they detrimental; I think that they're wrong."
Ahead of the U.S.’s 1-1 friendly draw on Tuesday against Honduras, Klinsmann told reporters he feels it’s more difficult to maintain a high standard of play in MLS than it is in top European leagues.
“It’s just reality,” Klinsmann said. “It’s just being honest.”
His comments mainly concerned Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey’s recent returns to MLS from AS Roma and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively. Regarding Jozy Altidore’s lack of playing time and success at Sunderland, Klinsmann said he preferred Altidore stay in Europe rather than return Stateside just for more minutes.
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“This league is getting better and stronger every year, which we are all very proud about, and I want everyone to grow in this environment,” Klinsmann said, “but the reality also is that for both players, making that step means that you are not competitive environment that you were in before.”
Garber, who also sits on U.S. Soccer’s Board of Directors, went on to say he was not calling for Klinsmann to be fired, but that he would like to have a serious discussion with all parties concerned about the partnership between the federation and MLS.
“I believe that Jurgen should embrace the vision for the future of the sport," Garber said. "That, to me, is his job. For him to publicly state issues that he has with Major League Soccer, in my view, is not something that is going to allow him to effectively serve the role of not just coach, but as technical director.
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“We have a good relationship with Jurgen, but I do believe that we collectively need to ensure that everybody is aligned with the mutual goal that we have of growing the game and the league’s role in growing that game,” Garber added. “In order to do that, we can’t try to denigrate or damage or disparage the very entity that will be the key driver of the sport in this country.”
Garber said those comments, which he sees as following a pattern of Klinsmann criticizing MLS and its top players, led him to hastily arranging the media conference call Wednesday. Garber said the pattern started with criticism of Landon Donovan, who he stated emphatically for the first time “should have been in Brazil” for the 2014 World Cup, and continued with Dempsey and Bradley.
“It sends a wrong message to other young American players that we collectively believe in the federation that we want to have in Major League Soccer so we can create the dynamic that grows the game in our country,” Garber said. “I also think it’s going to send the wrong message to players that we’re signing from overseas.”
Garber reiterated that the league’s desire is to support the national team programs of both the U.S. and Canada. He pointed to the 10 MLS players on the American squad for the World Cup and the others whose careers began in the league, which he said proves that the league is strong.
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“To think that our national team coach is in disagreement with that is frustrating,” Garber said. “We believe that the league, the future of the sport and our relationship with the federation are inextricably linked. If we are able to continue what we have had a strategy to do together … we will become more and more of a soccer nation.”
To that end, Garber said MLS has spent $30 million in 2014 alone on player development programs, including academies and franchises setting up USL Pro teams for their reserves.
Germany’s youth development program, which includes regional training centers spread across the country and a strong connection between the German league and federation, has been widely heralded for the team’s 2014 World Cup victory.
It’s a system and relationship that Klinsmann helped set up when he managed the national team from 2004 to 2006, exemplified by Mario Gotze, who entered Borussia Dortmund’s academy at age 8 and scored the tournament-winning goal in Brazil as a 22-year-old.
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“When young kids are going to grow up and want to play this sport professionally, want to play for an academy program or youth team in the shadows of a great MLS stadium and ultimately view those players who are on the first team as true soccer heroes, then ultimately, I think it will lead to us performing better in the World Cup,” Garber said. “By the way, I think Germany has a great model, and it’s a model that we’re trying to achieve here. It won’t be achieved unless we can have a national team coach getting on board with that deep, deep strategic connection.”
Garber said he sent a letter to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and a note to Klinsmann about his comments before the press conference, but that he had not spoken with Klinsmann directly.
“I would say I’ve got a very good relationship with Jurgen, which is why I was so shocked,” Garber said. “I have enormous respect for everything that he’s done in his career, and as a member of the federation board was incredibly supportive of his first contract and his extension.
“So I believe I have a good relationship with him. I just am demanding that he refrain from making comments which are critical of our players and damaging to our league.”