PHILADELPHIA — On the night before CONCACAF’s press conference promoting this summer’s Gold Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann met with a small group of writers in a hotel conference room and led us through something a little different: A PowerPoint presentation (some of it off-the-record) that laid out his short- and long-term approaches between now and World Cup 2018.
It wasn’t rocket science, but it did give you the sense that Klinsmann isn’t making it up as he goes along. “We want to raise the bar as best we can,” he said, and if there was an overarching theme to the presentation, it was this: The U.S. competes in a brutally difficult global environment, and as a result Klinsmann needs to push everyone—his players, his prospects, his own federation and, yes, MLS—as hard as possible.
Some of what Klinsmann discussed wasn’t anything new: We know that he thinks players on MLS teams (especially those that miss the playoffs) don’t get enough games per year to keep up with their European-based competitors. And we know that he thinks MLS shouldn’t schedule matchdays on FIFA international dates (though he seemed more bent out of shape about the games it costs youth national team players than senior team players).
But there were some things that stood out as interesting and/or new, including:
U.S. Soccer’s new analytics department
The federation is establishing a data analysis arm based at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., that Klinsmann hopes will provide him information that he can use. It will be system-wide, from the senior team to the youth national teams to the U.S. development academy.
Technical videographers have been shooting every national team camp recently, but now the analysis will go even deeper.
Having been to the recent Sloan Sports Analytics conference and heard that most of the world’s soccer managers are still hesitant to use analytics, I asked Klinsmann about his plans for the tool.
“Overall, coaches are happy with getting the data,” he said. “Let’s say, how quickly you release the ball, how quickly you get into transition, how quickly you transition into your defensive shape. How you connect your back line right away with your midfielders. There’s a lot of good data to use.”
“The danger right now is, especially in Italy and Germany, I’d say you have coaches from two different worlds. The ones who want to be on the front foot on these kind of ideas and be data-driven and have a clear concept they want to follow. Then you have the coach who does it more out of his stomach … coming more from the emotional side instead of the analytical side. It’s pretty cool to see that, because I know a lot of coaches, and I see who’s going which way.”
“I think data helps. To what extent you want to use it, I think it’s good to use it going forward once we have that department together just to show our players based on what we expect of them how we want them to play in their roles.”
Klinsmann’s fitness dossier
Speaking of data, remember the controversy in January over Klinsmann’s comments that the U.S.’s fitness wasn’t good for the national team camp that month? He said at the time that he had the data to show it, and that’s what we got to see on Wednesday (minus the names of the U.S. players).
Using a spreadsheet that was color-coded for green (“USMNT standard”), yellow (“below USMNT standard”) and orange (“not competitive”), the analysis included results from 10 types of player tests (including the infamous "beep test" for endurance).
Let’s just say that a fair number of squares from the January camp were either “below USMNT standard” or “not competitive.”
I think part of the uproar in January came from Klinsmann indicating that there was a problem with the fitness culture inside the U.S. team, in the sense that he didn’t think some players did enough in December to prepare for the January camp.
The U.S.’s fitness culture has been one of its strong suits for more than a decade. But if some of the guys didn’t meet what he was expecting fitness-wise for one camp, yeah, that could be an issue.
Dual-nationals continue to be on the agenda
Courting U.S.-eligible dual-nationals is only one part of Klinsmann’s strategy, but he wants to keep following it if possible. He said Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem has not yet cleared FIFA eligibility after getting his passport at New Year’s, so he may not be able to come in for this month’s friendlies against Denmark and Switzerland.
“We obviously hope Gedion Zelalem will come through,” said Klinsmann, who added that he thinks Zelalem is already at the level where he could play on the U.S. senior team at age 18. “In Mexico, with [Club America center back] Ventura Alvarado we have watched him several times. [Leon goalkeeper] William Yarbrough, we like him a lot. There are a couple youngsters in Germany coming through with possibilities to play for us. One kid in England. So there’s a lot happening.”