“Mia san mia”
It’s a motto, an expression of pride and a call to arms for supporters of Bayern Munich, the powerhouse that furnished the foundation of Germany’s World Cup-winning side. It’s a uniquely Bavarian spin on a German phrase that translates roughly to, “We are who we are.” In other words, as far as its supporters are concerned, Bayern’s strength flows from a deep sense of understanding and pride in its roots.
Jurgen Klinsmann spent two seasons playing for Bayern, where he won a Bundesliga title and the UEFA Cup. He then managed the club for the better part of the 2008-09 campaign. He’s surely intimately familiar with “Mia san mia.” He must understand the power, durability, and even the burden of identity.
When Klinsmann took over the U.S. national team in the summer of 2011, he was charged with taking American soccer to the next level. He brought global credibility, a World Cup winners’ medal and lots of big ideas. He wasn’t beholden to the status quo. In fact, he hoped to overhaul it.
Soccer occupied a unique place on the U.S. landscape. It was an awkward adolescent and the country’s fourth favorite team sport, at best.
For-profit youth clubs, the NCAA and a nascent professional league that looked so different from foreign counterparts presented significant hurdles. The resources were there but the culture was lacking.
To catch up, the new manager argued, the U.S. had to build the sort of crucible that proved so effective in the countries he hoped to beat. There was a blueprint out there, and it was time to get serious.
“It’s a competitive global sport,” Klinsmann said during an interview in the fall of 2011. “If you talk about the development of the game, you are not looking around and wondering about what’s going on in your neighborhood or in your state. You look at what are best practices. Best practices are happening in Chile or Brazil.”
Two weeks ago, Klinsmann took his team to Chile, where a La Roja squad featuring just two 2014 World Cup players overcame a deficit and pressured and passed the U.S. into submission. The 3-2 defeat in Rancagua was the Americans’ third straight. It lifted the U.S. winless streak to five and, more importantly, extended the period since Klinsmann’s team had played a complete, 90-minute game to around eight months.
When he took the job, the German legend said, “I think America always likes to decide on its own what is next. This guides maybe towards a more proactive style of play where you would like to impose a little bit the game on your opponent instead of sitting back and waiting for what your opponent is doing and react to it.”
In three-and-half years, which included a World Cup where it was outplayed in three of four matches, out-possessed by an average of 56.5 percent to 43.5 percent and outshot by a whopping 94-44, the U.S. rarely has imposed its game on a non-CONCACAF opponent. Good results against good teams have come here and there. There were the friendly wins in Genoa and Mexico City and the group stage defeat of Ghana in Natal. But those victories were the result of resolute effort, cohesive defending and opportunism – the things the U.S. always has done pretty well. There was little sign of an emerging, more "proactive" style.
“You can have a certain success if you play very defensive minded, play old-style long balls and play a second-ball game and you might have a chance,” Klinsmann said in 2011. “That’s the 1-out-of-10 game, and I’d just like to get away from it. If you build a consistent approach to all the elements, I think we can get closer to the top 15 teams in the world and maybe have a better shot at beating them maybe three or four times instead of just one out of 10. “
Klinsmann has tried just about everything. He’s overhauled his tactics and then overhauled them again. He’s implored and even forced his players to do more – to work harder in an effort to create a fitter, smarter, more committed athlete able to succeed at the highest level. He’s challenged them publicly in a manner no predecessor could have imagined, perhaps hoping to create the sort of scrutiny and pressure present in more established soccer countries.
He’s taken shots at the foundation of the American game, from the way young players develop to the way MLS structures its season. And he’s let it be known that it’s his way or the autobahn. Other coaches saw the value in working with the idiosyncratic Landon Donovan. He was worth the extra effort. Klinsmann sent the best player in U.S. history packing.
And so the Americans took the field against Panama on Sunday looking to end what amounted to the first crisis of confidence of the Klinsmann era. While it took time for his players to become accustomed to his coaching, fans and the press always seemed solidly behind the big-idea man.
And it wasn’t the Donovan issue or the skin-of-their-teeth escape from Group G that created the concern.
It was a series of exhibition setbacks at the dawn of the next World Cup cycle. There were columns last week that questioned Klinsmann’s acumen and approach. On game day, there were banners at StubHub Center reading “JK Out” and “Red card the coach."
The underlying reason for the consternation was that the U.S. still wasn’t playing the sort of soccer Klinsmann had promised. And instead of tangible progress, there was debate about who should be deployed where and even whether the players were fit. If they were overtrained, exhausted and injury prone, then that’s on Klinsmann. If they lacked the discipline or structure to meet the manager’s benchmarks, then it’s a symptom of a larger problem he may be unable to solve. Either way, it isn’t a conversation anyone expected to be having in 2015.
After a relatively easy 2-0 win over a poor Panamanian side, Klinsmann reiterated his interest in re-evaluating the future of the January camp. Perhaps, he said, it should focus on the Under-23s in 2016, which is an Olympic year. Perhaps more progress can be made at the youth level. The junior national teams have struggled since Klinsmann, who’s also the U.S. Soccer Federation’s technical director, took over.
The Olympic qualifying failure in 2012 stole the headlines. But the U-20s were poor (albeit ultimately successful) in last month’s U-20 World Cup preliminaries and the U-17s failed in their most recent qualifying bid. If there’s another Donovan or Clint Dempsey coming through the pipeline, he remains unidentified.
Klinsmann has three years to go on his coaching contract and he’s now face-to-face with a harsh but reasonable reality. The core of the senior squad now plays in MLS. U.S. players aren't going to reject multi-million dollar contracts that offer the prospect of professional respect, responsibility and the opportunity to live near home.
The league isn’t about to lengthen its season or overhaul the calendar to avoid more international dates. And it’s not going to create the level of roster and playing-time competition that Klinsmann believes is necessary any time soon. Winter and playoffs account for the former, and $100 million in annual losses explain the latter. The NCAA isn’t going away, and the U.S Soccer Development Academy, which includes MLS’ youth programs, is still finding its way.
Klinsmann wants his players to be desperate to succeed -- to live and breathe the sport. And he wants them to face the heat. He’s claimed over and over again that the public pressure athletes face in the world’s top soccer countries is an important part of their development. He said this during that 2011 interview and has often repeated the theme (although sometimes the hypothetical confrontation takes place at the butcher or the gas station):
“If they’re in Glasgow, if they’re in Hoffenheim or Salt Lake City, it’s all different and it plays a big role. If you play in an environment, where if you lose Rangers against Celtic, you don’t want to go to the baker the next morning. If you lose that game in Salt Lake City, it’s different. I don’t think somebody will bother you about that. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you lost last night, but no problem.’ In Glasgow, nobody will say, ‘Oh, it’s no problem.’ They will give you crap for five days. You don’t want to go outside anymore.”
Soccer is the most popular sport in Scotland. And it’s the most popular sport in each of the eight countries that has won a World Cup. What Klinsmann hopes to build here requires a culture, infrastructure and collective desire that simply couldn't be fashioned in the quarter century that’s elapsed since the Americans qualified for Italia ’90. The youth environment remains too forgiving. The market is still so segmented. There are too many sports and too many options for both the prospective player and the fan. It's not possible now to create the single-mindedness Klinsmann is seeking.
His predecessor, Bob Bradley, coached the match in front of him. He designed a game plan to beat Spain that day in Bloemfontein and with a keen understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, his players executed. When Bradley’s team was able to play with a bit more dynamism and flourish, it did so knowing it had a solid base and structure to fall back on. It had an identity.
Klinsmann’s teams do not because he’s trying to accomplish so much more than to win the game that day. He’s trying to spark a cultural shift that’s going to take a lot longer to occur than the four years he has left on the bench.
It’s a generational, economic and demographic evolution that started in the 1970s and has slowly but surely carried the U.S. this far. And there’s still a ways to go.
Perhaps Klinsmann will facilitate the process by blazing the proper trail. But for now, the U.S. national team is what it is – a competitive, hard-working, reasonably talented collection of players from a place where soccer is far from the most popular sport. It’s one of only eight to advance to the round of 16 in three of the past four World Cups. But since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1998, the eventual champion has won an average of six games during the competition. The U.S. has won six World Cup matches combined over the past 80 years.
Klinsmann can change only so much. In his role as technical director, there is progress to be made. He's already influenced some changes at the developmental level, adding additional resources for youth coaches and increasing the number of junior national teams. And soccer’s organic growth will continue. But with the senior side, it’s probably time to be a bit more pragmatic. Sometimes, a comfort zone is good. Tactics that play to a team’s strengths are more likely to be successful. Athletes have a better chance on the day if they’re confident and in command. They can't change where they were born or how they learned the game. They are who they are.
Mia san mia.