By Paul Gardner
A German head coach for the U.S. national team? After the virtually Teutonic rigidities of Bob Bradley, that does not sound like the new beginning that is required.
Of course, there are weighty reasons for not regarding Juergen Klinsmann as German, or not a typical German. The fact that he did things very differently from the traditional way when he took over the German national team in 2004, for a start.
The Germany that he put on the field for the 2006 World Cup was widely hailed as something new for Germany -- younger, brighter, more exciting, more attack-oriented -- all of which sounds almost too good to be true.
As it happens, I am one of those who found Klinsmann’s achievement exactly that ... overrated. Frankly, they were not up to what one might expect -- after all, the world’s No. 2 soccer nation staging a World Cup should surely be expected to do better than third place.
Taking a quick look at those results: A 4-2 romp over a lightweight Costa Rica (which lost all three of its games, letting in 9 goals in the process) started things off, followed by a labored 1-0 win over Poland; another romp, 3-0 over Ecuador, followed. The 2-0 win over Sweden was probably the best performance, but nothing to set the house on fire. Then came a lucky PK win over Argentina -- and that was it, as the Germans bowed out to the eventual winner Italy.
That World Cup episode was Klinsmann’s first attempt at coaching, and he got amazingly high marks for it. So high, that he was quickly hired by Bayern Munich, where he found things much tougher, and got himself fired before the season ended. That record, looked at objectively, is nothing special. And it was accomplished under ideal circumstances -- i.e. working in his native country, with German players, the ones he should understand best.
Unquestionably, in 2006 Klinsmann did field a lively attacking team that, if nothing else, looked good when contrasted with the turgid side that Germany had become. He now enters a similar situation -- the current USA team has bogged down into mediocrity, it needs jolting back into life. And just as Klinsmann took over Germany under favorable circumstances (playing as the host team in the World Cup), he takes charge here at a friendly moment, with the USA confronted with nothing more strenuous than seeking to qualify for the 2014 World Cup -- a feat that it should accomplish without undue effort.
The results, then, are virtually certain to be acceptable. But it is the other part of Klinsmann’s German success that is vital here -- producing a team that plays exciting soccer. And coming up with a team that fits together all the varied parts of the jigsaw puzzle that is the American talent pool.
Of course one should view that prospect with considerable optimism. Klinsmann speaks Spanish, which ought to be a major help to him in mobilizing this country’s Hispanic talent. He has also given evidence of understanding that results are not the primary aim -- he told the Germans when his early results there were not going well, that “Young players need defeats to make progress.” (Against that, is the rarely noticed fact that Klinsmann’s new Germany was a big team -- his starting 11 against Costa Rica had an average height of 6-foot.)
It may be that Klinsmann’s main talent is as a motivator, rather than as a tactically canny coach. And that might work out well, at least at the beginning of his U.S. stint, because no one who has seen the USA’s recent games can be in any doubt that it is not a very spirited group.
But the real test of Klinsmann’s value will be the matter of style. That is going to be the crucial yardstick by which Klinsmann’s work with the U.S. men must be judged. That is all that really matters. I have said on a number of occasions that I really don’t give a damn how a coach prepares his team -- as long as it plays vibrant soccer.
So I will just have to overlook the fact that Klinsmann has shown alarming tendencies to think and act like a Californian. He took a team of Californian fitness gurus with him to Germany (supposedly they worked wonders, but one couldn’t help noticing that in the two overtime games that Germany played, it was the opponents, Argentina and Italy, who looked fitter). He had the team gathering in circles and inspiring themselves with chants like “We are a TEAM!” His California new-age affectations went right off the chart when he coached Bayern Munich, and had four Buddha statues installed at the training center. They were, it seems, meant to help spread “positive energy,” but they were soon removed. A former Bayern player Mario Basler smirked that, in his day, he and his teammates “would have gone up and shot the things.”
I suppose I shall also have to ignore the fact that Klinsmann's introductory press conference will be held at New York’s Niketown, which, for my taste is putting the sponsor too obtrusively at the center of things, however much Nike may be involved in this Klinsmann deal.
I’m hoping that none of the California-style b.s. will occur, but I’ll look the other way if it does -- provided the new team is being intelligently put together, providing it plays attractive soccer. And, of course, provided it looks like an American team, and does not resemble the bulky Germans who were so over-praised in 2006.