By Paul Gardner
Klinsmann gets his first cheer for paying attention to what Mexico is doing. That really ought not to warrant praise, but given the way that Mexican soccer has been so shabbily treated by the USA in the past, it does mark a significant advance.
And he gets his second cheer for publicly admitting that there exists a gap, that the Mexicans are “a step ahead of us” right now. That admission also marks a first on the reality front and it has evidently been a difficult admission to make -- the way that Klinsmann defines the current situation, judging Mexico to be “a step ahead,” is a laughable understatement.
Since June 2011 the Mexicans have won the U-17 World Cup, the Concacaf Gold Cup, the Pan Am Games, the Toulon Espoirs tournament, the Northern Ireland Milk Tournament, and the Olympic Gold Medal (they also placed third in the U-20 World Cup). During that same period the USA won nothing and failed even to qualify for the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics. This is some step that Klinsmann is talking about.
But it is not Klinsmann’s attempt to minimize the task ahead that persuades me to withhold the third cheer. That decision is based on Klinsmann’s remarks about what Mexico has been doing over the past three or four years: “They’ve identified a way they want to play and everybody dedicates themselves to that style of play. … We often talk about that more technically, and soccer-specifically, that you’ve got to lead to a system. You have to work to a way where everybody is committed to a cause and for each other.”
Firstly, style of play. I would say that the Mexicans have had their style of play for at least 50 years now. I really don’t think there’s anything new there. I first saw Mexican boys’ teams play at the Dallas Cup in 1987 and was immediately impressed by the neat ball control ... and the reliance on a short-passing game. It was a style that was recognizably present in all the young Mexican teams that I was to see over the next 14 years. At that point, the Mexicans had not only a smooth style, they were now winning. In 2001 all six of the Dallas Cup age groups, from U-12 to U-19, were won by Mexican teams -- from six different clubs.
At the time I wrote in this column that “The chances are high to the point of certainty that the Mexican sweep will not even be noticed by the top level of American soccer. ... As far as Mexican soccer is concerned, this country is, has been for decades, in denial.”
Klinsmann, at least, is not in denial. But his reference to the Mexicans having, recently, “identified” a style seems to me quite wrong. The style has been there for a very long time. Other things have been happening, clearly -- organizational things -- and my feeling is that those things will be the ones that get studied.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati recently spoke approvingly of a Mexican requirement that young players should get a certain amount of playing time with the first team. In my own talks with Mexican coaches I have been told that the keys to success include much greater involvement of pro clubs in youth development programs, and the requirement that all pro games be preceded by a youth game.
But to copy just those initiatives will do nothing to close the gap. What puts us at a disadvantage with the Mexicans goes deeper, and starts earlier, than organizational matters. The Mexicans evidently start with superior raw material. Their kids, so to speak, come ready primed to play skillful soccer.
From what I’ve seen, it goes against the nature of even the youngest Mexican boy to simply hoof the ball off into the distance. What he wants to do is to play it on the ground, either to dribble it or to short-pass it. That mentality, I’m suggesting, is there very early. I doubt, strongly, that it is coached. It is absorbed as the boy grows up and watches older boys play, it is unconsciously adopted because that is the style that will allow him to play with those other boys. And because it is clearly enjoyable.
That is what I mean by style. I’m not at all sure that Klinsmann has that in mind, because he quickly goes on to speak of a system. At that point we have entered the world of coaching, we are talking tactics and formations and suchlike. All of that comes under the heading of teachable. Style is not so easily defined, it is a matter of inbred technique, a way of feeling the game acquired in the same way that young children learn, quite quickly, to speak their language, easily and fluently.
The basis of the Mexican soccer language is immaculate technique with the ball. We cannot claim to have, in any widespread form, such a starting point. Turning for help to a system will not get us there. Quite the opposite -- trying to replace basic, almost instinctive, skills with coaching systems diverts attention -- quite possibly with sporadic successes -- from where it should be.
In a number of ways, the Mexican success story mirrors what Spain has achieved. Their styles are basically similar. And both countries have had to endure decades of failure and near misses at the international level. What both countries displayed was a total faith in their style -- they kept playing soccer their way without giving way to the temptation to introduce expedient changes.
Klinsmann evidently believes that the Mexicans have plagiarized the Spanish game. He says that “a lot of elements were taken off the Spanish path during the last six years.” But I doubt that. I doubt it because I don’t see it as necessary. The basic Mexican game has always been good enough. It has lacked various elements -- in particular confidence and a will to win -- that have now been acquired, undoubtedly thanks to the organizational changes mentioned above.
But to imagine that those changes are the “secret” to Mexican success is to make a huge mistake. The basic ability of young -- probably very young -- Mexican players to speak their soccer language, their style, smoothly is what matters here.
To develop an American style, to produce whole generations of young players with a high-level of superior, inbred ball skills has to be the aim of the USA. Of course it’s a long-term operation (though it wouldn’t be quite so long-term had it been started back in, say, 2001) but it’s the only way.
Poor Klinsmann -- doomed to seek success with ill-trained young players. He has to know where the problem lies, though he talks of fitness and top-level experience and systems. What else can he do?
But he has at least noticed the Mexicans, and he has praised them -- “The way Mexico outplayed Brazil was wonderful to watch. They did many good things there. You’ve got to admire that and acknowledge that.” Now comes the difficult bit. Turning the American youth-development scene from a result-oriented coaching procedure into a soccer-oriented growth process.