Mark Zeigler writes of the change agent that is Jurgen Klinsmann.
There are a few things you need to understand about Juergen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer, which officially hired him Friday to replace Bob Bradley as men’s national coach.
First, the American soccer establishment is a largely an old boys network who sit on each other’s boards and in each other’s luxury boxes. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has been with the federation in some capacity for two decades and also serves as president of Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution. Dan Flynn has been the federation’s CEO since 2000, which followed two years at the U.S. Soccer Foundation, which followed four years as the federation’s COO.
Second, during his playing days with some of the biggest clubs in Europe, Klinsmann regularly pulled into a players’ parking lot filled with Beemers and Benzes in a blue 1967 Volkswagon Beetle.
Which is what so stimulating and, in some quarters, so scary about Klinsmann taking over as national coach (he'll be formally introduced at a New York news conference on Monday). The ultimate establishment just hired the ultimate anti-establishment guy. Blue bloods just handed the keys to castle to a baker’s son from Botnang.
Klinsmann, who turns 47 Saturday, spent his offseasons traveling across the United States not in first-class airline cabins or the back of limousines or five-star hotel suites. But backpacking. He gave money to Greenpeace, gave clothes to refugees, gave time to strangers.
When his playing career ended, he didn’t stay in Germany to live the life of an icon, to reap the public adulation after scoring 227 goals for professional clubs in four countries and leading Germany to the 1990 World Cup title. He moved to Newport Beach, where nobody knew him, where he could sit in the corner coffee shop and type on his laptop in peace.
When he became Germany’s national coach in 2004, he wanted a new technical director. His choice: an ice hockey coach. He also changed the tactical formation, the practice schedule, the fitness regimen, the psychological approach, the organizational chart. He cut one longtime national-team starter and replaced him with his backup from their club team.
“We need to question every single ritual and habit,” Klinsmann explained to German media. “And we need to do it continuously.”
So strap yourself in and hang on. We're talking revolution, not evolution.
“The word that best describes Juergen is he is a Renaissance man, and one of the things he’s always preached is always, always look for new experiences,” says Eric Wynalda, a San Diego State alum and once the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer. “He’s a very astute man. He studies. He’s in a constant state of learning.
“And it’s time for us to shut up and listen, you know? What we are doing isn’t working. It isn’t. U.S. Soccer is not in a position where they can argue with a person like Juergen Klinsmann. The ‘we’re doing just fine’ approach doesn’t fly any more. We’re not moving forward. We’ve hit stagnation.”
That might explain why Gulati is finally hiring Klinsmann in 2011 instead of 2006, after Bruce Arena was fired following a dismal World Cup in Germany. Gulati was reluctant to relinquish full control of the men’s national program, and Klinsmann refused to work with one hand tied behind his back.
Gulati tried again last summer, after the 2010 World Cup. Same reluctance, same refusal.
But Gulati didn’t have much choice now, not if he wants to preserve his stature, and legacy, within American soccer. It’s rare in this most apathetic of soccer nations that you hear cries for the federation head’s head, but they were rapidly becoming more than a whisper as one youth or senior national team after another stumbled.
“I’m glad that Sunil has let go of the reins a little bit and is listening,” Wynalda says. “It’s a big step in the right direction. To that I say, ‘Good for you, swallow your pride, put your ego in the backseat.’”
Former San Diego Sockers player and coach Brian Quinn has worked with Klinsmann at elite youth development camps.
“A visionary,” Quinn calls him. “He’s very insightful, observant. There’s a presence that he brings, a newness, a freshness … But if you buy an umbrella, it doesn’t really work unless you open it. It’s just a walking stick otherwise.
“And that has to be the approach. You have to be open-minded to what he’s saying. Juergen is not going to be a panacea to everything that’s been going on here for the last 25 years, but he’ll be able to maximize what we have.”
Strap yourself in and hang on. The blue VW Beetle is pulling out of parking lot.