That MLS Commissioner Don Garber should be upset by Jurgen Klinsmann’s thoughtless and really rather peevish comments on Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey is understandable. By coming back to the USA to play in MLS, Dempsey and Bradley are -- according to Klinsmann -- lowering their standards. Because MLS is an inferior league.
Two things. First: Klinsmann is undoubtedly correct, MLS is not up to the level of the top European leagues. But as neither Dempsey nor Bradley was guaranteed first team playing time in Europe, why would they want, or feel obliged, to stay there? Second: Garber’s response seems to me over the top. He says he found Klinsmann’s remarks “personally infuriating” -- infuriating enough for him to call, at ultra-short notice, a telephone press conference in which he took aim at Klinsmann’s crass comments.
Mostly, during the conference, Garber mentioned the negative effect -- for MLS -- that Klinsmann’s comments could have on players -- not only Bradley and Dempsey, but also on young Americans considering a pro soccer career, and on foreign players thinking of joining MLS.
That is all very much to the point, and I entirely agree with Garber when, commenting on Klinsmann’s statement that coming to MLS will have a negative effect on the careers of Dempsey and Bradley, he says “I don’t know what could possibly have motivated him [Klinsmann] to say that.”
Possibly Garber really was “personally infuriated” -- but the idea of a hastily called press conference carries the suspicion that the idea came from Garber’s bosses, the MLS owners. I think Garber had enough ammunition to aim at Klinsmann if he simply stuck to criticizing Klinsmann for the strictly soccer aspects of his remarks. But Garber evidently decided that his criticism needed to be leavened by some praise. So he remarks that Klinsmann has “done a great job with the national team.” Garber should be required to explain that one.
But Garber -- who is, after all, a marketing guy -- had to go further. He felt it necessary, or maybe the owners did, to explain that Klinsmann’s comments “... negatively affect our ability to create the right relationships with corporate sponsors.”
This is a tricky area. That of free speech. If Klinsmann genuinely believes that MLS marks a big step down from European leagues, should he barred from saying that? Klinsmann says he is simply being honest. And that is a statement that it is difficult to contradict. The answer to the impasse, I suppose, would be that Klinsmann should have enough sense to impose some self-censorship and not make derogatory public statements about MLS.
But he clearly doesn’t know when to shut up. Only a few days ago I was complaining about his inopportune criticism of Landon Donovan. Now he’s into Bradley and Dempsey -- and by shooting off his mouth might well cause a rift between MLS and the USSF. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, after all, must now decide whether to defend or to chastise Klinsmann.
Hidden in Garber’s comments was a veiled threat to Klinsmann. Garber said that “I insist that all of those people who are paid to work in this sport -- that they are allied ...” That there are no dissenting voices, in other words. And if someone does voice disagreement, what then? Well, if that someone is “paid to work in this sport,” then the implication is clear enough. He should resign. Or maybe “resign.”
(I feel it necessary to point out that mlssoccer.com, Garber’s official website, carries a story about this press conference. But this story does not include Garber’s reference to Klinsmann riling sponsors, nor to “people who are paid to work in this sport.”)
I’ve made my position on Klinsmann clear -- I think Gulati should ditch him. But for purely soccer reasons. Not because he’s upsetting sponsors. The idea of a cabal of MLS owners exerting pressure on Gulati to get rid of him does not sit at all well with me.
There is no doubt that Klinsmann has been spectacularly stupid. At the very least, Gulati must surely tell him that he has to apologize for his remarks.
That might calm things down for a while. But it won’t alter the fact that the USA has a national team coach whose repeated public statements make it clear that he has no faith in the value of this country’s pro league, and not much more in the players it produces.
I can see only one way to correct that anomaly.