By Mike Woitalla
Before Jurgen Klinsmann's debut as U.S. coach against Mexico, ESPN’s Julie Foudy asked him, "How would you define success over the next three years?"
It’s noteworthy that Klinsmann steered his response to youth soccer:
“I define success in individual development of players. Soccer traditionally is a lower-class sport. We need to find ways to give those lower-class kids the opportunity to play in the club environments where there’s a lot of money involved. We need to find ways to get the kids who are in a club environment to also play and kick the ball around in unorganized ways.”
When Klinsmann moved to the USA 13 years ago, shortly after retiring from a superstar playing career, he explained his short-term plans: Taking classes at a technology college to learn how the Internet “will change our society.” Taking Spanish classes. And exploring youth soccer development.
Klinsmann got involved in the adidas ESP Camp, a player development showcase for America's top teens. Along with former Germany teammates, he founded FD21 (“Fussball in Deutschland in the 21st Century”), an initiative aimed at getting children to play more soccer. ("If we can get kids interested again in just going out for an informal game of soccer now and then, we will be headed for a better future for the sport.")
The 1990 World Cup winner has often commented on the importance of free play. In 2003 at an NSCAA Convention, Klinsmann told Marc Connolly of ESPNSoccerNet:
"Soccer, in my opinion, is self-teaching. The more you play, the better you get. You don't see kids play in the park these days. It's only in an organized environment. We are starting to have that similar problem in Europe, as well. Certain things are not teachable.”
A year ago, Klinsmann told SI.com’s Grant Wahl, “You have the fact that [in the USA] it's mostly organized soccer, when we know that the best players in the world come out of unorganized events.”
The topic came up again in Klinsmann’s first press conference as U.S. national team coach.
“What is really missing compared to the leading soccer nations around the world, the top 10-12 nations around the world, is the amount of time kids play the game,” he said. “If you have a kid who plays in Mexico 20 hours a week, and maybe four hours of organized soccer but 16 hours of unorganized soccer just banging the ball around in the neighborhood, but if he gets up to 20 hours it doesn’t matter how he plays it, with his dad or with his buddies in the street.
“This will show later on with his technical abilities, with his passing, with his instinct on the field and all those things, and I think that’s certainly an area where a lot of work is ahead of us.”
Klinsmann also remarked on the recent progress U.S. Soccer has made: The U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s launch in 2007 and the appointment last year ofClaudio Reyna as Youth Technical Director and his unveiling of a youth coaching curriculum.
“I want Claudio very close to me,” said Klinsmann. “He will always be a part of the staff, and he will sit with us coaches at the table so I can tell him how I look at the game and how I can be of help to him.”
Commenting on the youth national teams, and whether they should all play the same system as the senior team, Klinsmann said:
“Obviously, you won’t have a copy in your under-20 or under-17 of the men’s national team because players are different. Players have all different characteristics, so every coach needs to find his own little path of how to put things together. But overall it should be a broader understanding of how also the youth teams should play, and this will be one of the main topics going forward.”
Klinsmann also spoke about the USA finally creating its own, American style of play. A topic which, like the inclusion of the USA’s Latino talent, his two most recent predecessors didn’t talk about much.
“It’s actually a fascinating point and I think, yes, the youth teams should reflect, again, the mixture of your cultures,” Klinsmann said. “It should reflect what’s going on in your country and there’s so much going on and that’s why I think Claudio Reyna’s role is very, very important to find a path, with us together, how those teams should play and how they should be put together.
“There’s so much influence coming from the Latin environment over the last 15-20 years. It also has to be reflected in the U.S. national team, and you have so many kids now with dual citizenship, Mexican or other Central American countries and American, so that will always be a topic to discuss.”
Klinsmann’s timing is good. He will benefit from the fact that since Sunil Gulati was elected president in 2006 U.S. Soccer has made youth player development a priority, and from MLS’s ambitious entry into the youth game.
Klinsmann’s predecessors made major contributions to improving the direction of youth soccer, but did so mainly behind the scenes. In his short time at the helm, Klinsmann has indicated a willingness to use his bully pulpit to make important points about the youth game in America.
The American youth game problems that Klinsmann cites may not be revelations and he won’t get a magic wand to make them go away. He can’t be expected to single-handedly encourage American children to play pickup soccer.
But his statements might very well have an influence on the coaches and parents at the grass-roots who are ultimately responsible for creating the soccer environment for America's children.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)