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Jurgen Klinsmann Said He Would Fix U.S. Youth Soccer; We're Still Waiting

As Jurgen Klinsmann keeps on building competitive U.S. soccer teams, it seems the world has forgotten about the task that may define his tenure.
September 8, 2014, 11:50am
Photo via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Moments before the start of a World Cup preparation match between the United States and Turkey in June at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, a fan wearing a Landon Donovan jersey worked his way closer and closer to the field. The fan did this so he could yell at a gathering of U.S. Soccer officials. The fan was pissed that his favorite player, Donovan, had been left off the squad. and he wanted to let the decision makers know about it.

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The officials didn't even flinch at the fan's comments, although his last zinger at least drew looks. The fan punctuated his tirade by pointing out that the national team was now comprised of players who didn't speak English.

The comment was obviously in reference to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to strengthen his team with several European dual nationals, players who chose to play for the U.S. despite being eligible to play for other countries. The talented group of dual nationals— which included midfielder Jermaine Jones, and forward Julian Green, among others—would give the U.S. a better chance of advancing out of their formidable group, but, at least according to this fan, it would also make the team less American.

In some ways, the xenophobic fan had a point. It wasn't supposed to turn out that Klinsmann would rely so heavily on players born outside of the U.S. But when the final World Cup team was announced, an astounding 10 of the 23 players on the squad had either never played a match for any U.S. Soccer youth team or never participated in a national youth team camp.

Klinsmann's legacy as U.S. coach was supposed to be built on what he did for youth development in this country. So far, those results are missing. What Klinsmann does in in the next four years in that regard will largely determine whether his tenure as national team coach was successful.

"U.S. Soccer isn't going to be an export-driven model," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said on Thursday at the Bloomberg Sports Summit. "We'll be a league that develops our own best players."

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Attaching youth development responsibilities to a national team manager would be unfair under most circumstances. Certainly there were no expectations that Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena would revolutionize youth development. However, Klinsmann was supposed to be a transformative figure in U.S. Soccer history, or at least that's what the federation has said numerous times. Klinsmann is supposed to transcend all other comparisons.

"I think there are a lot of different challenges ahead of us, especially on the foundation level, and the foundation is youth; how they should be trained, how often they should train, how much time they should spend with the ball, how they should develop their talent," Klinsmann told reporters in his introductory press conference on August 1, 2011.

When asked at that press conference about what the U.S. Soccer structure needed, Klinsmann added, "Overall it should be a broader understanding of how also the youth teams should play, and this will be one of the main topics going forward. What started from U.S. Soccer with the youth academies, it will expand and will get bigger and bigger."

Yet Klinsmann appears ready to once again rely on dual nationals in the next World Cup cycle.

During the national team's recent trip to Europe to play against the Czech Republic, Klinsmann told reporters that he was actively recruiting the brothers Shawn and Devante Parker—who both play professionally in Germany and have German and U.S. citizenship—to suit up for the U.S.

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Curiously, Klinsmann also said he was recruiting Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem, a German and Ethiopian citizen, who played a few years of high school soccer in the Washington D.C. area after his family emigrated from Berlin. But Zelalem, 17, can be eligible to play for the United States if his father acquires U.S. citizenship prior to his son's eighteenth birthday. The clock is ticking. Zelalem turns 18 in January.

While it's perfectly reasonable for Klinsmann to have both dual nationals and homegrown players on the squad, this wasn't what Klinsmann promised to do, and it would be awfully short sighted of him to abandon his original plan for the sake of winning a few more games. In addition, this country's soccer audience has become too sophisticated at this point for more soccer growth to happen by osmosis.

Banking on a long run in the 2018 World Cup to inspire kids to play soccer is misguided, and not just because a strong showing in Russia is impossible to predict. Mostly, it's because this trickle down theory of soccernomics hardly works. Usually, the initial excitement after a World Cup fades away in short order.

So far, Klinsmann's legacy as U.S. manager is not better than that of any of his predecessors. In fact, Bruce Arena guided the U.S. to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002, something Klinsmann can't yet claim.

Under Klinsmann, the U.S. has yet to develop a true uniform playing style at the senior level. Initially, he experimented with an attacking style, but that was short lived as Klinsmann quickly realized that he did not have the offensive talent for such tactics. So Klinsmann, to his credit, retreated to a more defensive style of play that earned him groundbreaking road wins in Mexico City and Italy. But Klinsmann, ever the forward at heart, was not content to have his players sit back. Prior to this year's World Cup he experimented with having midfielder Michael Bradley play more in the attacking zone. The move failed and Bradley never seemed to find his place during the World Cup.

Julian Green (left) is one of the dual-nationals raising questions about Klinsmann's dedication to fostering homegrown talent. Photo via Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

And therein lies the rub. Developing a uniform playing style requires years of implementation, some of which begins at the youth level. But if Klinsmann continues to poach players from other countries, many of whom will likely never play a game in the U.S. youth structure, then it seems almost inconceivable to believe that the national team can adopt any cohesive style of play. Without a real investment in developing homegrown talent, Klinsmann will have to constantly change his strategy in the years leading up to the next World Cup.

To try to create some continuity, U.S. youth teams have begun playing a 4-3-3 offensive-minded formation, which Klinsmann has tasked several new coaches with implementing.

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"Teams are beginning to actively try and play it out of the back, which isn't something we've seen that much in the past," said Will Parchman, editor of TopDrawerSoccer.com, one of the leading websites dedicated to U.S. youth and amateur soccer.

But Parchman said Klinsmann has taken a mostly hands-off approach to the youth teams, meaning his legacy may depend largely on the coaches he's hired. So far, the results aren't good. The U-17 team did not qualify for its most recent World Cup; the U-23 team did not qualify for the Olympics; and the U-20 team did not play well at the 2013 World Cup.

"Jurgen has always said this isn't going to happen quickly," U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe said in a phone interview last week.

Buethe mentioned the significant progress made in youth development since 2007. But all of that predated Klinsmann's hire.

Much like when he took over as national team manager for Germany, Klinsmann has inherited a recently revamped youth development system. In 2007, U.S. Soccer implemented the Development Academy, a partnership between the federation and the top youth club teams in the country.

Each year, approximately 80 clubs in both the under 13-14 years of age category and the U-15/16 and U-17/18 age categories participate in a 10-month season that is sponsored by U.S. Soccer. The schedule mirrors that of the top European leagues. During the season, U.S. Soccer coaches, trainers, and scouts evaluate players. It's a much better system than what existed previously when national team scouts were supposed to find players through mostly word of mouth. But Klinsmann had nothing to do with the creation or implementation of this system.

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In a general sense, Buethe said that for the past three years Klinsmann has been observing the youth system and has coordinated better communication between all parties involved. He's met with coaches at every level and has suggested new training methods. At some point soon, Klinsmann will supposedly make significant changes based on his observations.

Further, Buethe scoffed at the notion that Klinsmann hasn't done enough for youth development and he blamed criticism against Klinsmann on this issue on a lack of understanding of the Development Academy system. However, Buethe did not respond to an email asking what specific changes Klinsmann has made already, if any, within the Development Academy system during his tenure.

Certainly a coach must be given time to make adjustments, but has he waited too long? Part of the allure of hiring Klinsmann was that he claimed to already have an understanding of soccer in the United States.

"I'm really excited about this opportunity, this chance to coach the U.S. team having lived here for the last 13 years, and also getting to know the U.S. Soccer environment, having connected with this country in all sorts of environments - the youth level, the college system, MLS," Klinsmann said at the introductory press conference.

He later added: "I'm not coming in here to be the European guy. I've lived here for 13 years, so I think I know a lot about certain issues."

One of those issues was supposedly youth development.