Along with several reports that Jozy Altidore is heading from Sunderland back to MLS, either to Toronto or the New York Red Bulls, I had been told by multiple sources this week that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has been encouraging Altidore to stay in Europe instead of coming back to MLS.
That wouldn’t exactly be surprising: Klinsmann has made it clear he wants his U.S. players competing at the highest club level possible. But it has also caused tension between Klinsmann and MLS officials, including commissioner Don Garber. So it made sense to get Klinsmann on the phone and ask whether he has in fact been steering the 25-year-old Altidore toward a European club destination.
His answer: Yes.
“You give them your two cents,” Klinsmann told SI.com from the U.S. January camp in California on Tuesday night. “With Jozy, I just say it would be nice if I would see him one day in the European Champions League. Because I think he’s a Champions League player. He has that potential, the talent to do so.”
“Now if there is no solution in Europe for him, if the next solution for him is MLS, that’s totally cool with me. I have no problem with that,” he continued. “But from a competitive standpoint, it’s normal that a coach wishes that his players go to the highest level possible. Which would be in his case the Bundesliga or Serie A or La Liga or even the French league, if it’s not the Premier League right now.”
“At the end of the day, whether he decides to go to Toronto or New York, that’s purely his decision, just as it was Michael Bradley’s decision or Clint Dempsey’s decision [to move from Europe to MLS].”
Yet Klinsmann himself acknowledged that the issue is more complex than Europe > MLS, and he advises U.S. players on a case-by-case basis. What becomes clear is that while he thinks Altidore, Bradley (27) and Dempsey (31) should still be in Europe, he’s perfectly fine with other U.S. players coming to MLS based on their individual circumstances.
Like, say, 24-year-old Brek Shea to Orlando. “Brek tried it in Europe, and it didn’t work, so he needs to play,” says Klinsmann. “I told Brek, ‘Listen, you need to play 30 or 40 games at least to come back into our picture … He needs to be part of this, to start all over again. So absolutely his situation with Orlando is a very positive one.”
Or Mix Diskerud, 24, who signed with NYCFC on Tuesday after leaving Norwegian club Rosenborg. “Mix had different options in Europe, but not bigger options than Rosenborg,” says Klinsmann. “Then come New York City Football Club, which is a start-up with a very exciting ownership and people involved like Jason Kreis and Claudio Reyna. So a lot of positives there. Mix asked me, and I said, ‘Yeah, I think it makes sense.’ Every player has his own individual situation.”
Or Jermaine Jones, 33, who joined New England last summer after playing his entire career in Europe. “I think it was a no-brainer for both sides,” says Klinsmann. “He was probably our best player from the World Cup with Fabian Johnson and Tim Howard. He’s 33 years old, but his market in Europe gets more and more difficult as a box-to-box midfielder. He loves the U.S. and has a home in L.A., so we discussed that over a long stretch of time.”
So if you’re keeping score, those are three U.S. players Klinsmann encouraged to make the move from Europe to MLS: Shea, Diskerud and Jones. One word of advice: If you’re looking for hard-and-fast rules when it comes to Klinsmann’s preferences, you’re going to be out of luck. But it’s fair to say that he wishes Altidore wasn’t coming back Stateside right now.
“Jozy is in a different stage right now because of what he went through since he was 18 going overseas and the difficulties he had all over the place except at Alkmaar,” Klinsmann says. “You never can say something in general. If tomorrow another player comes with a specific situation and says, ‘I’m ready for Europe, what are my options?’ I will explain to him what his options can be.”
“It will always go in both directions, but for me as a coach the most important thing is that I see them continue to develop make the most out of themselves. And when I get the feeling they’re not making the most out of themselves, then obviously they will have issues with me.”