As word first emerged of Jurgen Klinsmann's desire to direct young MLS talent into training spells abroad, we all assumed this was about players maintaining fitness and gaining a little more technical expertise. Klinsmann directed everyone toward that sentiment through laments of the MLS season's relative brevity, about two months too short in his opinion.
But that's a vastly incomplete explanation of what Klinsmann, now in his fifth month at U.S. soccer's highest coaching post, hopes players such as Brek Shea, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo and others can accomplish through a few weeks abroad.
It's so much more than maintaining lung capacity and picking up some extra shake and show for the athletes' burgeoning bag of tricks. You only need a few minutes with the congenitally enthusiastic Klinsmann to understand: these training spells are so much more than the sum of the minutes spent sprinting, passing and trapping.
It's really about motivating young talent to burrow further into the game, about investing more of themselves by accessing a deeper level of commitment. It's about challenging their training conventions and breaking free from their individual comfort zones. It's about wading waist-deep rather than just ankle-deep into all the little tributaries that feed the game's main reservoir, such as nutrition or daily mental preparation. It's about gaining a broader appreciation of soccer as life, which the coach sees as essential to any young talent's professional pilgrimage.
It's just a small piece of the puzzle as Klinsmann tries to reinforce the men's national team program, but an important one.
"In Europe or in South America, they live and breathe soccer all day long," he said late last week from California, shortly after returning from a coaching symposium in Brazil. "So I want them to understand there is a social responsibility to their job. In order to get to the next level, I need them to understand there is more than just training and games to their jobs."
Klinsmann talks about this pet project as he does with everything related to the program, with excitement and even a touch a salesmanship. And that's part of the point; he wonders if players under him can ever achieve that same fever-pitch of enthusiasm until they stretch themselves, until they experience a more complex attachment to the sport, until they learn that it's a big ol' world of wonder out there.
"It's important to experience different methods," he said, still rattling off the reasons he's kicking young players out of their MLS offseason nests. "Maybe Bolton in England is doing things one way, but Hoffenheim in Germany is doing them another way. So they definitely need to know how to adjust, how to learn to deal with different environments. Generally, they just need to get a feel for how seriously they have to take their jobs, because their jobs really are so much more than just training on a very good level."
That's why Klinsmann intervened personally to get Shea into about three weeks of Arsene Wenger's sessions at Arsenal. Shea worked almost exclusively with the first team and came away impressed, a little intimidated about his driving experiences around London but completely gung ho about the soccer end. He wants to make Europe an annual destination, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere.
Ream has trained at two English Premier League addresses, West Bromich and Bolton. His New York Red Bulls teammate Juan Agudelo spent time at VfB Stuttgart in Germany. Robbie Rogers and Kyle Beckerman trained with another Bundesliga club, Kaiserslautern. Each effectively stretched his season by at least a month with these stopovers.
The physical part is important, of course, as Klinsmann looks to shore up the program's soft spots -- and he thinks this is one of them. Most MLS training camps begin in February; the regular season goes through October. Playoff sides push into November. Klinsmann appreciates the American sports structure and the weather challenges that make a longer season impractical, if not impossible.
So his petition to get MLS players into camps abroad seemed like a great compromise for all, a perfect bridge to shorten the distance between the MLS campaign and the national team's annual January camp.
But not everyone is convinced these are such a great idea. L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena wondered why all the hubbub? He questioned the true value and warned that foreign clubs won't necessarily have the visitors' best interest in mind.
Something else to consider here: almost every MLS player or coaching import says the same thing about the demanding, extensive travel here, much of it during hot summer months: that it's easy to underestimate the wear-and-tear factor attached to such an exhaustive grind. So, could it be that MLS players actually need a little more down time?
Perhaps, but Klinsmann isn't buying it.
"They definitely do not need two or three months," he said, practically stacking exclamation points at the end of the remark. "They need two or maybe three weeks of time off, then they should be ready to go full steam ahead."
By then Klinsmann may have slyly reached the heart of the matter: perhaps this is a litmus tests of sorts, one to help Klinsmann gauge commitment in the bigger picture.
"I'm not talking about the average MLS player," he said, almost parenthetically. "If this kind of player thinks he needs two, three months off, that's OK. But for those with higher ambitions, this is what's necessary to get up to speed."
Nor is Klinsmann buying any concerns that he may by unwittingly hastening the departure of budding MLS talent. These so-called training stints abroad do, of course, become de facto tryouts. Sure, Bolton and West Brom knew about Ream before the smooth-passing center back landed in England last month. But this is a bonus opportunity for officials there to more extensively study the player, to watch him interact, monitor his daily training habits and to perhaps remove any lingering doubts. These "test drive" opportunities could encourage teams like Bolton or West Brom to become more aggressive in their pursuits during the January transfer window.
Klinsmann is dismissive here, too. The money clubs' tightly stitched scouting networks have created ample awareness of these players long before they put on a training top, he said.
Klinsmann personally helped organize some of these get-togethers; as a respected figure whose address book is a who's who of European coaching, he's in a position to do so. (You get that for a cool $2.5 million annual salary.) The U.S. coach helped arrange Shea's three weeks of training at Arsenal, for instance. For that matter, Klinsmann even intervened to help Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis visit three German clubs to study training methods, happily leveraging those contacts for managers willing to stretch themselves, too.
But going forward, it sounds like Klinsmann wants players reaching out for these opportunities on their own, without his prodding. It could be another little test, one meant to separate those who are truly hungry from those content with just a little snack.
"I expect them to organize themselves," he said, before adding with typical Klinsmann agreeability, "but I will always be happy to help."