For all the scrutiny Jurgen Klinsmann’s personnel decisions have received during his tenure as U.S. national team coach, one of his most important moves may have flown almost entirely under the radar.
In March, Klinsmann handed the captaincy to Clint Dempsey for games against Costa Rica and Mexico. Last week, with regular captain Carlos Bocanegra still frozen out of the roster, Klinsmann made the move permanent.
Perhaps it wasn't given more attention due to the mostly-symbolic nature of a soccer captain. For all intents and purposes, a captain is the same as any other player, except he gets to lead the team out of the tunnel and wear a neat-looking armband.
Or maybe it was the fact that the full extent of Klinsmann's thought process behind the move wasn't revealed until after the team's 4-3 friendly win against Germany.
Following last Sunday's game, in which the 30-year-old scored twice, the U.S. coach explained why he decided to make the Nacogdoches, Texas native the leader of his team.
“Is he highly talented? Does he have all the tools that you need to have to play at the highest level? Yes,” Klinsmann said. “But what is far more important: He has the drive. He has the hunger. He's not satisfied.”
That famous drive is what took Dempsey from a trailer park to the highest levels of the international game. In many ways, Dempsey is a relic of a bygone era. Unlike most elite players in the United States now, the Tottenham star gradually climbed the ladder of the antiquated American player development model: club ball to high school to NCAA to the MLS SuperDraft. Nothing has ever come easy.
One year before the World Cup, when so many casual American fans are roused from their four-year soccer hibernation, Klinsmann has decided to make Dempsey the standard-bearer for his team, the face of American soccer.
This is where the true significance of Klinsmann’s move comes into focus. By making Dempsey his captain, the coach is sending his team a message: Be like Clint. Work like Clint. Think like Clint. Or get out of the way.
There was a subtle hint of this line of thinking during the press conference after the Germany match.
“All the players look at him and see the hunger and they see this drive and they see him get upset or something like that. It’s just really important for our players to get that hunger and drive to push yourself,” Klinsmann said. “I think Jozy [Altidore] can learn so much from Clint.”
The mention of Altidore was unprompted, and it was telling.
Altidore is a player who has all the ability in the world, but his career has suffered at times due to whispers about unprofessional work habits. Klinsmann himself was so frustrated with his young striker that he left him off his team's roster for crucial qualifiers last fall.
On Sunday, Altidore busted out of his slump in a big way, scoring a goal, assisting another and generally looking lively and buzzing around the pitch.
Klinsmann's equation is clear: Take Jozy's ability, add Clint's attitude, and you have a monster.
The coach's message can also be seen in the divergent path of two of his biggest names. As one of those players led the U.S. team out of the tunnel at RFK Stadium on Sunday, the other was toiling away for the LA Galaxy in Foxborough, Mass.
The comparison may be slightly unfair, but the attitudes shown by Dempsey and Landon Donovan towards the national team over the past year -- and the response from Klinsmann -- could hardly be more different.
Most captains fall into one of two categories: The vocal leader who deliver Knute Rockne-esque speeches in the locker room and lights a fire under his players on the pitch, or the other, more Clint Dempsey type.
“I think everyone is a different leader in their own way,” Eddie Johnson told reporters. “I think Clint lets his play speak for itself. When he's on, his play and energy becomes contagious throughout the group.”
Truth is, when a player is as effective on the field as Dempsey has been, the need to be a vocal leader is greatly diminished. The Tottenham midfielder has scored 10 goals in his last 11 appearances for the U.S. national team.
“He's the guy we look towards to score goals. He's the guy we look towards to change games,” Johnson said.
If he doesn't speak up as much on the field, Dempsey's post-game interviews give a window into his psyche, and Sunday was another example.
“We’re happy with the win, but at the same time we expect a lot out of ourselves,” he said following the Germany game. “We’re not happy with conceding the amount of goals that we’ve conceded in these two games. It needs to be better.”
Though he's only lived in the States for a small portion of his life, Klinsmann knows that one of the hallmarks of the U.S. national team over the past 20 years has been its work-rate, its team spirit and its indefatigable attitude.
The coach has now found the personification of this attitude, and made him the face of his team. The U.S. squad will only go as far as its captain can take it. For Klinsmann, it's a journey worth making.
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