Don Garber feels threatened. It’s not a stretch to infer that much from the Major League Soccer commissioner’s diatribe directed toward U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann during a press teleconference Garber arranged on Wednesday.
A spate of recent attacks on MLS’ structure and the product on the field, first from former national team coach and current LA Galaxy manager Bruce Arena and now from Klinsmann, have drawn Garber’s ire. In his reactionary $20,000 fine of Arena and volcanic denunciation of Klinsmann’s public statements, Garber comes off looking worst of the trio.
Klinsmann’s job is to get the U.S. closer to winning a World Cup, which is why the federation decided to throw the amount of money at him that it did. It’s also why U.S. Soccer renewed Klinsmann’s contract before his first cycle finished.
Even before he became U.S. manager, Klinsmann adamantly believed changes needed to be made to the American footballing mentality. As an ESPN panelist during the 2010 World Cup, Klinsmann said the U.S. is “the only country in the world that has the pyramid upside-down.”
It would make no sense to expect Klinsmann to hold his tongue now simply because he’s the head coach and technical director. These sorts of opinions were exactly why he was hired, and the experience he gained from playing and coaching at the highest levels of the game worldwide cannot be separated from his comments.
He oversaw the growth of the German development system to the point that it won his native country a World Cup this year. He wants the same for the U.S.: a world-class system that rewards excellence, punishes mediocrity and brings the on-field product up to global standards.
Despite Garber’s comments to the contrary, it’s actually Klinsmann’s job as the American manager and technical director to get under people’s skin, ask uncomfortable questions and make demands of those under his purview to get the U.S. to a higher level. He has every right to challenge and question his best players; that’s how they improve, not by stagnating within their comfort zone on the field.
Another major issue about that Klinsmann has addressed publicly is the easygoing nature of American fans and media, which plays directly into the go-with-the-flow mentality surrounding MLS. Garber’s comments echoed that atmosphere, demanding that the national team coach not criticize his own players and the league that is supposed to provide him a platform to win a World Cup. Meanwhile, if MLS’ quality prevents the U.S. from winning, Klinsmann is still accountable.
It’s difficult to imagine a league executive in any major footballing nation making similar comments as Garber. If the U.S. wants to reach world-class status — and if Garber truly wants his league to be in the world’s top 10 — challenges should be welcomed, not derided as iconoclastic.
MLS is nowhere near the level of the top leagues in Europe — Garber could not deny nor dispute it when asked directly on Wednesday — from the youth academies to everyday operations to match day. Being defensive about that reality won’t get MLS to that level; understanding why Klinsmann said what he did would go much further.
Klinsmann’s footballing pedigree is unquestionable, as a World Cup winner. Garber has experience in front offices of the National Football League and MLS. Frankly, only one of their résumés points to an understanding of how to build a world-class league and national team program.
Klinsmann knows how the end product looks, and he was brought into the U.S. to wrangle the nation’s vast resources into winning a World Cup. As a country of immense population and wealth with an immigrant population wildly underrepresented in elite youth clubs, the U.S.’s potential has only been superficially tapped.
The pay-to-play youth system and closed top division against which Klinsmann has spoken hold the country back. As Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola said when his team visited in preseason, as soon as the U.S. wants to win a World Cup — meaning those in charge embrace the types of changes Klinsmann has proposed — the rest of the world has no chance.
Rather than asking Klinsmann to embrace MLS’ vision, perhaps Garber should embrace some of Klinsmann’s. The market for soccer has long existed in the U.S., otherwise foreign teams wouldn’t sell out preseason games, and foreign clubs wouldn’t poach talent from youth clubs nationwide. Klinsmann was hired to make waves and instill changes. Before he became the U.S. manger, the American soccer community whispered any dissenting opinions for fear of being labeled as heretics or seen as doing irreparable damage to a budding league that needed assent from all corners.
Now, uncomfortable discussions of the U.S. and MLS quality, promotion-relegation and a lack of transparency at the league and federation levels occur in public forums.
Klinsmann has embraced and exemplified the American values of openness and competitiveness better than many who have lived here their whole lives. On that basis alone, his tenure so far has been a success.
Garber said Wednesday that Klinsmann’s continued vocal nonconformity with MLS was “detrimental and wrong.” Actually, his outspokenness is the best thing that’s happened to American soccer in years. It’s time that fans and people in positions to enact true change understood possibilities beyond the status quo.