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From across the pond: USA and the Klinsmann factor

In less than 100 days the London Olympics will begin. One notable absence will be the US men’s soccer team.

In what can only be described as an epic failure, the Americans finished out of the top four in CONCACAF qualifying, despite hosting the tournament. What seemed to be a promising group of professional players emerged as a huge disappointment of unhoned ambition.

Caleb Porter, who had been coaching at amateur level in collegiate soccer, was selected to guide the team. Among his team selection were several college-bred players who proved inadequate to the quality needed to outplay the likes of Canada and El Salvador.

In an unprecedented open press conference through US Soccer, Jurgen Klinsmann defended his appointment of Porter and the side that conceded a goal in the dying minutes of its last match. The new American national team manager picked Porter based mostly on his recent success as a coach of college champions Akron of Ohio.

Some wondered if the former German World Cup winner had been out of touch with the football world or if he had just suffered from the Americanization of living in California for more than a decade and a half.

Olympic flop

Needless to say, the Olympic flop was less than what most American football supporters would accept given the current state of the game here. The USA has qualified for every FIFA World Cup since 1990 and is pretty set on higher results than just making it to the tournament. The Americans have also participated in every Olympic soccer tournament since 1984 with the exception of 2004 in Athens.

Winner of 50 of the 87 games as a manger of Germany, Bayern Munich and the USA, the Americans get their first international competition under Klinsmann when they meet Antigua and Barbuda on June 8 for the CONCACAF World Cup qualifier in Tampa, Florida.

Klinsmann has won five of the 10 friendly matches he has been in charge, including a 1-0 win over Italy, but performances have been less than spectacular thus far, with the scoring anemic and the strategy curious to observers.

But few could argue with results, even if they end up like Germany’s 1-0 World Cup win through a penalty kick. All would be forgiven. However, with the enthusiasm and spectacle that MLS has offered, and the structure that has American soccer professionalism at its all time peak, there is little room for failure with the national team. With six new soccer-specific stadiums (13 in total now) being erected in just the last five years, football is finding a home in North America.

The recent announcement that the academy system will be extended to 10 months of the year, which can offer an alternative to the severely antiquated high school soccer programmes, has received applause from the purists.

Surprise

So, it was a bit of surprise to see a college coach chosen to lead the Olympic players that are usually one step from senior selection. In fact, this group of US Olympic hopefuls included no less than 10 senior appearances each from Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union), Juan Agudelo (Red Bull New York) and Brek Shea (FC Dallas). In contrast, Porter’s Akron college proteges - Kofie Sarkodie, Zarek Valentin and UCLA college product Amobi Okugo - looked outmatched against their peers, with just a total of 60 MLS matches collectively for their experience.

In the press conference, Klinsmann answered the question of more playing time for Americans in the MLS by urging the youngsters to work harder and prove their merit. This was sage advice rather than demanding MLS coaches offer starting slots to potential US internationals.

Klinsmann left Bayern Munich in a cloud of circumstances that the media explained as “a difference of opinion” with the board of directors.

It is not the first time the former Tottenham Hotspur striker has crossed foils with upper management and won't be the last.

Klinsmann had previously been interviewed by US Soccer president Sunil Gulati a year before finally being appointed as manager. Gulati opted to retain American Bob Bradley for another term at that time. Back then, Klinsmann said he was not assured of having complete control over all the aspects of soccer development and the organization’s pyramid. Now it seems he does and there is a heavy weight put on his shoulders.

Praise and criticism

The days when an American national team manager could stroll through his term with mixed results is long over. Today, former national team managers like LA Galaxy’s Bruce Arena offer both praise and criticism. Arena can afford to do so as the only coach to lead the USA to the World Cup quarter-finals, in 2002. The MLS is now averaging nearly 20,000 fans per game and the financial infrastructure seems sounder with each expansion franchise. There is greater pressure to produce and to be bring home a prize.

Among the criticisms Klinsmann is facing is the inclusion of several German-born Americans who qualify for the USA through birth parents. Fabian Johnson and Daniel Williams (both Hoffenheim), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund), Timothy Chandler (Nurnberg) and Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04) have all been newly capped under his management.

Meanwhile, two American-born Hispanic players are fueling much speculation. One of the standouts of the Under-23 Olympic tournament was Joe Corona, now plying his trade with newly promoted Tijuana in Mexico. Santos Laguna’s Herculez Gomez, an MLS reject, is also scoring goals south of the border, netting 11 in 12 games. He helped to eliminate MLS’s CONCACAF Champions League opponents Seattle Sounders and FC Toronto by scoring six goals (three against each club).

The truth of the matter is that the easier the position seems, the more complex it is to be the USA’s top gaffer. With MLS nearing 20 clubs and Americans playing in the top leagues of England, Germany, Holland and Italy the pool of selection is deep. But even with the likes of Brazil, it has to be the right 11 to bring home the prize.

The difference between madness and genius will be determined by the results that Jurgen Klinsmann produces if and when the USA qualifies for Brazil 2014.

By Chuck Zsolnai

Chuck Zsolnai is director of International Soccer Archives. He has reported on football for more than 20 years, including coverage of seven World Cups.


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