American Resistance

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Simon Evans

Simon Evans has written about international soccer for 20 years from Eastern Europe and then Milan, where he was Reuter’s sports correspondent. He is the co-author of the Rough Guide to European Football. He now lives in Miami.

Would Jurgen Klinsmann be more popular if he were American?

Even before Monday’s major win over Ghana, Jurgen Klinsmann enjoyed success with the U.S. team, and and yet some in the American soccer community remain skeptical, even hostile, toward the German coach. Why though? It’s an uncomfortable thought and a delicate subject, but is it because he’s a foreigner?

Former U.S. national team and current L.A. Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena came right out with it in a recent New York Times story: “I believe an American should be coaching the national team. I think the majority of the national team should come out of Major League Soccer. The people that run our governing body think we need to copy what everyone else does, when in reality, our solutions will ultimately come from our culture.

“Come on,” he added, “we can’t copy what Brazil does or Germany does or England does. When we get it right, it’s going to be because the solutions are right here. We have the best sports facilities in the world. Why can’t we trust in that?”

Last year, Arena also said this to ESPN The Magazine: “Players on the national team should be—and this is my own feeling—they should be Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”

Of course, the players on the national team are Americans, at least as far as FIFA is concerned. Neither FIFA regulations nor United States citizenship rules define eligibility by birthplace. Many in Klinsmann’s team are the sons of American servicemen who have grown up in the German football system and were recruited to play for a nation they have spent little time in.

“It’s different times now,” Klinsmann said in response to Arena’s comments. “We have a lot of kids breaking through in different countries based on where Americans have spread out in the world. For me personally, America is a melting pot, not only here in the U.S, but it’s a global melting pot.”

Klinsmann is not only national team coach but also technical director of U.S. Soccer, and his mission is not to fit in but to bring about positive change. He has challenged the American soccer establishment and has been more than willing to criticize the system and the players that it has produced.

And this is where he finds opposition. Almost every time he talks about the big picture, he upsets those who have been working to improve the game here over the past 20 years. When he questions youth soccer, he rankles coaches who have spent years trying to develop American players. When he criticizes the MLS calendar and urges his players to play in Europe, he upsets a league to which many have given years of unglamorous service. When he talks about U.S. teams needing to have a more proactive approach and impose themselves on games—describing that as being more American—he bruises the feelings of those who played on Arena’s and Bob Bradley’s teams, or at least those coaches.

In this sense, Klinsmann is no different from the highly-paid outside consultant brought into a corporation to criticize everything its hard-working staff has ever achieved. And he does this in an American soccer circle that is already hypersensitive to foreigners telling them that they’ve got it all wrong. I’ve heard the story of the English “coach” who could barely make his Sunday pub team back home but spends his summers getting paid to teach kids in the U.S. while better qualified Americans can’t get work at the same camps. Kyle Martino, the commentator and former player, has called it the “find-anyone-with-an-accent method.”

When he was a child, Martino has written, “This approach left us with a drunk Englishman named Simon who, when awake, would tell us about getting “stuck in” and “whipping the ball in the box. These weren’t exactly the blueprints for the beautiful game.”

Of course, Klinsmann, isn’t a drunk Englishman: He was one of the finest players in Europe in his day. He went on to coach Germany and Bayern Munich. He judges players not by the standards of what Arena so frequently calls the “American player” but by global standards. Everything he has done—in terms of nutrition, fitness, tactics, and motivation—is aimed toward bringing his players up to an elite international level, and he doesn’t seem to care who takes offense.

Some Americans hope that a national way of playing will emerge from the culture itself—”the solutions are right here,” as Arena puts it. The American soccer community is a relatively young and small one, but it has developed an identity: plucky boys ignored by mainstream sporting America, not taken seriously by the world, battling against the odds with their indomitable spirit. And there was a linear line of progress to that narrative: the U.S. started to beat Mexico, started qualifying for World Cups. The domestic leagues grew and attendances slowly increased.

That growth must contend with globalization’s invasive powers. American kids get home from practice to see Messi and Ronaldo in the Champions League, with the action described by commentators with foreign accents. The New York-New Jersey Metrostars are bought by Austrians and adopt the name of a European energy drink. NFL and MLB owners invest in soccer but in Premier League teams. The best clubs in the world come to the U.S. every summer to play in front of large crowds of their new American fans, many of whom openly disparage MLS.

Amid this disorientating, rapid change there was always the national team. Bob Bradley, like Bruce Arena before him, was an archetypal American coach. He came out of the college system, had studied the game intensely, served his time, and worked his way up. The team’s biggest star, Landon Donovan, had tried to make it in Europe but preferred to live in California and play in MLS. There was something reassuringly American about it all.

And then Bradley was fired and a German took over, marking the end of the linear progression for the national team. Some have embraced the change, others have shrugged, and still others have resisted. And the lighting rod for that resistance remains Jurgen Klinsmann.

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