Can Klinsmann make a grass-roots impact?

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’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 of Claudio 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

15 comments about "Can Klinsmann make a grass-roots impact?".
  1. Bill Anderson, August 11, 2011 at 5:41 p.m.

    Klinsmann's rosters will signal the direction that young players will recognize. They will not need to be coached, just observant. All young players have their heroes, and want to play like them. In my house the boys love Brek Shea at the moment. Everything is all about Brek, how great he plays, how cool his hair is, how he attacks the opponents. How he fights for the ball.
    Klinsmann will not have to stop over to inspire them, just recognize good talent, put it on the field, and the grass roots will follow.

  2. Daniel Clifton, August 12, 2011 at 10:56 a.m.

    Klinsmann's understanding of the game and the development of youth is exactly what the US needs. For years I have been complaining about the fact that kids don't learn sports on their own anymore. I grew up playing football on the local school yard and then later basketball and baseball. We are missing the development of a great reservoir of talent in inner cities and the Hispanic community. I coached some boys who were brothers from El Salvador. These kids learned how to play in their back yard playing against eachother and playing against their uncles and cousins. Their ball skills were superior. After three years to me the real judgment of Klinsmann's impact will be in this area of youth development. I believe he will have a positive effect on the USMNT. But his real legacy if he can do what he is talking about will be the development of the youth in this country.

  3. lorenzo murillo, August 12, 2011 at 11 a.m.

    Get rid of ODP and those horrible coaches that claim to be ELITE... and you'll be closer to creating great players.

  4. Luis Arreola, August 12, 2011 at 11:13 a.m.

    Odp is finished at least here in Illinois. Only 10 ODP players chosen of 80 for U14 camp. Note there were politics involved in selection with Illinois players not even looked at. Klins is using common sense when saying selection should mirror the current culture, hence more Hispanics. Had Bradley admiited to this, meaning he had to known, USA would be a better force right now. But is good Bradley stuck to his racist guns so we could get spmbody who loves soccer players.

  5. Dennis Mueller, August 12, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

    It is interesting that a german managed to communicate what a Princeton University graduate did not manage to get out. The ideas Klinsmann expresses are identical to those who have bothered to pay attention to Bob Bradley already heard.

    The notion that Bradley is racist is not only wrong it misses the truth by such a wide mark that it is laughable.

    Bradley is a very intense person and one who does not share his emotions so openly, but anyone who thinks his passion for soccer is somehow lacking or that his knowledge is less than first rate is simply lacking in understanding of the man.

  6. Kent James, August 12, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

    Having someone of Klinsmann's stature telling people that in order to be more competitive at the international level we need to be more accessible at the grassroots level, and have less organization and less coaching, and more pick-up is exactly what we need. If Klinsmann and Claudio Reyna put the effort into this, I think it will have a positive impact.

  7. Philippe Fontanelli, August 12, 2011 at 12:27 p.m.

    Dennis M. while Luis A. maybe not quite right with his remark calling Bradley a racist as he has openly used black Americans, but he has surely refrained using Lationos, especially Torres as that he might have dangered his son's inclusion. (BTW I am of Italian descent) But one thing I am sure of that he is a nepotist, sellfish, bigot and sans-emotion cold man. Just look at JK's joy after the goal we have scored and the compliments he has dished out to the players that merited it. That was never in Bradley's portfolio. The morale was at the lowest ever in the US camp. He is not a motivator nor a leader nor a teacher.
    But you seem to know different so you must be his kin or his blind to soccer cohorts. Alas it's a free country with many different opinions. Just like our poloticians who were blind to the needs of the country only seeing their own sellfish interest and that would also describe Bradley as the coach.

  8. Georges Edeline, August 12, 2011 at 12:51 p.m.

    Refreshing comments from Coach JK! Working with toddlers, daily, boys & girls, ages 1.5 - 4.5, "FUN" is the magic word!
    Each child has a ball, in a designated area, working on ball control & individual skills, through age-friendly, enjoyable activities!
    Kids are supervised, mostly for safety & developing good habits, but not restricted!
    The basic requirements are to keep the ball moving, with both feet, changing speed & direction...

  9. Luis Arreola, August 12, 2011 at 12:53 p.m.

    Maybe I was a little harsh but Bradley was defenitely Bias towards Hispanics. Maybe it was the style of play that he doesn't agree with. Its good that he was so transparent and finally failed to take USA to another level to give Klins the chance to completely do the opposite and be successful. Maybe Bradley's intensity will work somewhere else.

  10. Tyler Dennis, August 12, 2011 at 1:52 p.m.

    LOL. I love the fact that everyone thinks kids are going to get together in a park all of a sudden and play soccer. Parents won't let them. It's also funny that Klinsman talks about 20 hours of free play in Mexico and 4 hours of coaching. My kids just came back from playing in Mexico. They were in a program and had 6 hours / week of coaching U8-U14 (I have a 6, 7 and 12 year old). The difference, is every night at the local bball court, even after the practices, there were about 20-30 kids playing 4 aside soccer. Win you stay on, lose you get back in line. You need to create an environment that mixes the free play, the individual goal setting and the coaching into one program. Parents, in the U.S., won't embrace anything else unless it is structured. Problem is that we don't have people who are thinking creatively how to pay for the programs.

  11. Luis Arreola, August 12, 2011 at 2:05 p.m.

    Super, Isn't it too much to glorify him as an intense coach? Com on dude, it is what it is. I applaud Bradley for being upfront about it with his actions. Don't you think its a little weird that Klins brings in 2 missinig in action Hispanics, a few days into his job and instantly the USA plays a more attractive and efficient style of soccer? What was Bradley trying to achieve? Most tomes actions speak louder than words.

  12. Philippe Fontanelli, August 12, 2011 at 3:17 p.m.

    Luis you were right about Bradley while he may not be predujiced he seemed to be was very much against using Latino players. If he tried them once he discarded them for the second time, whereas he kept on bringing back others even though they were "defunct" and not beneficial for the starting XI. The same goes for Hans Backe who got rid of DiRo and then Agudelo doesn't get any playing time inspite that he plays well in the MNT.

  13. Philippe Fontanelli, August 12, 2011 at 6:09 p.m.

    Sorry I meant "prejudice" it happens often you are writing is speed and tight spave.

  14. Jorge a Forero, August 13, 2011 at 3:32 a.m.

    Having Jurgen & Claudio as our soccer leaders will only work if the rest of us are willing to work with them by allowing them the time to develop their soccer plans. They have plenty of experience as players. Jurgen has national coaching experience. They are young and eager to change or better yet help us find our own soccer style. Let’s wish them well because Brazil 2014 is around the corner.
    I agree that the ODP is just a money making scheme and we should try very hard to get rid of it. Many of the coaches are physically unfit and lack the soccer knowledge to teach our children.

  15. Kent James, August 14, 2011 at 8:56 p.m.

    Tyler, you make a good point. I think the way to adapt it to the US is to encourage clubs to have a pick-up night (or a few nights a week during the off-season), where at a designated time, players come to the club and just play. No additional cost for registered players, limited cost ($5/night, or a $20 fee for the season, e.g.) for non-registered players. An adult or two representing the club, who perhaps divides up the players into different small-sided games (and rotates fields every 20 or 30 minutes). Mix the ages up within a range (U14-adult, U10-U14, U9 and below). Depending on how many players, some nights divisions are random, other nights players get divided by skill levels (so all the best players in one of the big age groups are on one field, e.g.). The USYSA encourages this in their Y-license course, so the higher ups are trying to encourage it, but it needs to be implemented at the grass roots level. Once kids get exposed to the joys of pick-up, then they will start going to the park on their own and organizing their own pick-up games. When that is a common sight, then we'll have a chance to start developing the most highly skilled players in the world.

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