Copa America kicks off tonight with U.S. vs. Colombia. Even if the tournament itself is a mostly made-up cash grab for two corrupt soccer federations, there are still real soccer games with some very good national teams on American soil, the biggest tournament in the U.S. since the 1994 World Cup.
No one has more on the line in this tournament than Jurgen Klinsmann. In the fifth year of his tenure as the Men's coach and technical director (perhaps in name only since last year) of U.S. Soccer, fans are growing increasingly frustrated with the program's stagnation. Many of the promises Klinsmann made when he was hired—to increase the talent level across the program, improve youth development, and improve senior team results in major tournaments—have arguably not happened.
In advance of Copa's kickoff, Klinsmann gave an interview with the Wall Street Journal that is equal parts puzzling and disconcerting. The published Q&A contains "edited excerpts," but it paints the picture of a senior U.S. Soccer official unwilling to take any blame himself, instead casting aspersions on the American education system, every other major sport played in the U.S., and the players themselves as contributing to a "reactionary" playing style and general culture of resigned acceptance.
Speaking on the lack of development from youth talent, Klinsmann praised Bobby Wood and DeAndre Yedlin before saying:
"The Czechgame [sic], we gave the first cap to Emerson Hyndman, he disappeared. What is going on on the goalkeeper front? Tim Howard is 37. [Brad] Guzan is 31. Nick Rimando is 36. Where is our next wave? Holy moly. We lost that generation that didn't qualify for [the] London [Olympics]. What happened to the Bill Hamids, the Sean Johnsons, the Breck [sic] Sheas, the Mix Diskeruds?"
It is not often you hear a national team coach go off on several fringe roster players weeks before a major tournament (the interview took place last month). Some of his chosen targets are particularly puzzling. Emerson Hyndman, for example, is 20 years old and playing at Fulham, rumored to be on the move, perhaps to Manchester United, Spurs, or West Ham. He is the same age as Matt Miazga, who just moved to Chelsea and didn't make the Copa squad.
Speaking of Miazga, when asked about him and Pulisic—who did make the Copa squad—Klinsmann replied,
"The potential that Matt Miazga has, Pulisic has, and we have some other kids that are coming from the under-17 cycle, it's just wonderful. Every new cycle you have unbelievable talent and then five years later we look at these names and they are gone."
Given that Klinsmann had his technical director duties stripped of him last year, maybe he's frustrated with how things are being handled by the new powers-that-be. Nevertheless, Klinsmann is a major part of an organizational apparatus specifically tasked with developing that talent, which he explains away through, well, something or other.
"How many times can we tell them? Matt Miazga—intimidate! Make sure you get every header! I always use the example of John Terrry with set pieces. What are set pieces? Set pieces are determination and a willingness that I can do better. If that ball is anywhere close to me, I am going to have it. Ask John Terry. Is John Terry the tallest guy? He got every second ball. So how is that possible, that every second corner from Chelsea [finds] John Terry? Because he is determined. He reads the ball ahead of time, he starts his run ahead of time and he is so aggressive to get those balls, so how can you teach that? Matt Miazga, take that, because you are taller than John Terry. Build that into your game and build another weapon."
Determination. Willpower. Aggressiveness. Intimidation. These, along with peak physical fitness, are hallmarks of previous U.S. managers who preached the power of intangibles to get results, including Klinsmann's predecessor, Bob Bradley. Klinsmann was supposed to change all that, making the program about world-class talent.
This is, to me, the most concerning thing about Jurgen Klinsmann, which every new interview seems to bore out in some form or fashion. Not that he makes puzzling roster and tactical decisions or is ineffective at overhauling a youth system with so many problems endemic to American culture writ large, but that he is no different than the others and American soccer is stagnating under his watch, but with the guise of progression because of his European accent and pedigree.
There is one way in which Klinsmann differentiates himself from previous National Team coaches: his eagerness to blame American culture in general.
"We still have a culture here where people wait for someone else to solve your problem, and this comes from a reactive culture in other sports, where decisions are driven from the outside. It's all stop-and-go. Baseball, it's stop-and-go. They communicate with each other. American football, it's the next play. Learn your playbook. The first year, you are probably not playing because you are a rookie. That approach, to be reactive—that doesn't work in soccer."
I think what Klinsmann is trying to say here—that every other American sport can have discussions about strategy—is a silly argument for America's top soccer coach to make—it's the other sports that train our players wrong—and, once again, conveniently is not Klinsmann's fault or responsibility. Whether he's pointing the finger at millennials, American culture, his specific youth players, or throwing shade at the new technical director(s), he's blaming everyone but himself, which makes the final line of the Q&A especially ironic.
"…you have to take matters into your own hands."