As MLS bows gracefully (well, that’s my hope) off the soccer scene for a short while, and the English Premier League prepares to dominate the TV screens over the holidays, it’s the moment to sort out some loose ends, or at least raise them as talking points.
MLS Cup 2014 for a start. It’s tempting to view this game, not as the Galaxy vs. the Revs, but as Landon Donovan vs Jermaine Jones, which really boils down to Landon Donovan vs. Jurgen Klinsmann. We can thank Klinsmann for that interpretation, because he is the one who keeps praising Jones as his ideal player, and he is the one who decided this past summer that Donovan is not good enough for the U.S. (that is, Klinsmann’s) national team. Fair enough. So Donovan and Jones will clash - possibly directly - in this climactic game.
To that extent, Klinsmann’s judgment in on the line. A distraction of course. Who the hell cares about Klinsmann’s judgment? There can be no discussion. It is awful. The absurd Donovan decision made that clear. If it was a soccer decision, then Klinsmann cannot escape the charge of incompetence, and simply does not belong in his job. If it was a decision based on personal considerations, Klinsmann should quit, not so much for incompetence as for unworthiness.
During a recent interview with SI.com’s Grant Wahl, Galaxy coach Bruce Arena had his say on Klinsmann’s policy of encouraging young U.S. players to go to Europe: “I don’t agree with that . . . We know from experience that European clubs are more experienced and have more resources than us. I don’t think they necessarily know anything more about soccer. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that we can’t develop elite players here. And we should encourage our elite players to stay here, and we should have the resources to keep them here. We can develop players here ... Jurgen only knows Europe. He doesn’t know the United States as well as he needs to ... He’s got to learn our culture and our system a little bit better. And help make it better. It’s part of his job.”
Precisely. But unfortunately it’s a part of the job that Klinsmann has already shown he either doesn’t care about or is incapable of acknowledging. So he will continue this tangled business of telling young Americans they have to challenge themselves (by moving to Europe) while telling the young quasi-Americans who grew up in Germany that they should not challenge themselves by trying to play for Germany, but should take the no doubt easier option of playing for the USA.
Klinsmann is a clear example of the dangers presented to American soccer by the foreign experts. Because the American game has now reached the stage where it needs to stand on its own feet and -- yes -- to make, and learn from, its own mistakes. Klinsmann’s constant refrain that American players are not good enough and that MLS is inferior is not helpful -- particularly as Klinsmann’s efforts at building the U.S. national team have not produced anything that looks like progress.
Another foreign expert -- one who will also likely have an influence on MLS Cup -- is Peter Walton, the English referee who was brought in three years ago to show Americans how to referee. This was MLS at its worst, simply not knowing what it was doing. There was nothing wrong with American refereeing anyway, certainly nothing that necessitated the import of questionable English refereeing practices.
I can see absolutely no sign -- after three years! -- of any improvement in American refereeing. Walton has imported the English obsession with simulation (which gave us, this season, two of the most laughably inept decisions imaginable), and the English notion that it’s OK to give cozy little chats, instead of cards, to players who commit fouls. An approach that, of course, encourages fouling.
Walton’s referee choice for MLS Cup is Mark Geiger. I have great admiration for Geiger’s refereeing. Or at least, I did ... but lately it seems clear to me that Walton’s influence has taken hold, and Geiger has joined the let ‘em foul school. If that is the style of refereeing that Geiger employs on Sunday it will have an effect on the game. Not, to my way of thinking, a positive one.
I mentioned the English obsession with simulation, a distorted gospel so faithfully spread here by Walton. I hope that Walton watched last Sunday’s Southampton-Manchester City EPL game. When he would have seen a disgraceful diving call by referee Mike Jones against Sergio Aguero. Not even the English TV commentators, usually so quick to announce that “he went down too easily,” could excuse this one. A blatant foul by defender Jose Fonte -- sweeping both of Aguero’s legs away, no contact with the ball. A cast-iron penalty kick. If referee Jones had bothered to look, he would have seen the Fonte desperately pointing to the ground outside the area, clearly admitting the foul, but claiming (deceitfully) that it was outside the area. So who was cheating here?
None of that mattered to Jones, who yellow-carded Aguero for simulation. A call, I think, even worse than the one MLS produced back in August with Allen Chapman’s shocker against the Revs’ Charlie Davies.
But, whereas MLS commish Don Garber called a sudden press phone-in to protest vehemently about the way Klinsmann was trashing MLS, not a sound has been heard from the league about Walton’s inadequacies. Explicable, I suppose, in the sense that MLS appointed Walton. They made an error, and they’re not about to admit it. Panning Klinsmann comes a lot easier -- that was Sunil Gulati’s error, he made that appointment.
Everything I’ve been discussing points in one direction: That soccer continues to grow in the USA, that it has by now reached a pretty sophisticated stage where forelock-tugging to foreign experts should be a thing of the past. Americans are now quite capable of applying intelligent judgment to decide what sort of foreign help -- if any -- is needed.
From where I’m sitting, the contributions of Jurgen Klinsmann and Peter Walton are not helping. Rather the opposite, I’m afraid.