The entire besotted enterprise of the Klinsmann Era, this grand American soccer experiment, is based on a simple idea.
Can Jurgen Klinsmann rejuvenate and modernize the United States men's national team the way he once did for Germany's program? Could he alter the way the entire country plays and thinks and views soccer, and lay the foundations for a World Cup trophy a decade or so down the line, like with Die Mannschaft?
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On Aug. 1, 2011, when Klinsmann was introduced to the American press at a cavernous sporting goods store in Midtown Manhattan, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati declared that he believed Klinsmann could.
"Today starts a new era for us," Gulati said.
The prevailing thinking then was, essentially and simply, that if Klinsmann had managed to push Germany to the next level, he must be able to do it with the U.S. as well. And in retrospect, the similarities between the landscape when Klinsmann took the Germany job in 2004 and the U.S. job in 2011 are striking. They become even clearer in Raphael Honigstein's excellent new book "Das Reboot: How German Soccer Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World."
Before he became Germany manager, Klinsmann publicly criticized the team for its inability to keep up with the speed of play at the highest international level. He hadn't apparently applied or angled for the job, but it eventually fell to him when several others turned it down. Most were astonished, for he had no coaching or managerial experience whatsoever – although he did have his license – and hadn't been around German soccer much since his retirement in 1998. Klinsmann declared Germany to be a country of doers, and its increasingly nihilistic playing style should reflect that.
He argued that Germany needed a highly specialized national team staff and a long-term vision, and then set about implementing those things when he got the chance. Within short order, Klinsmann made changes big and small to the German team's setup, dismissing longtime staff members and ditching long-standing protocols.
He pushed through reforms, almost as a matter of policy, recruiting psychologists, trainers and fitness coaches – whose methods were considered futuristic hokum by the horrified and skeptical German tabloids. He urged his players to get fitter, even though they'd historically been known as a very fit team. He challenged his players in all kinds of ways, on the field and off it. He cracked down on information getting out to the press. And he eventually deposed his longtime captain, goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, who had been thought to be untouchable.
"This was not about changing everything," Klinsmann says in the book of his time in charge of Germany. "It was an exciting process to see where we were and where we could go. We wanted to try as many things as possible, doing it with a certain amount of stubbornness: If we were convinced something could get us ahead by a few percentage points, if it made sense, we were prepared to go with it."
If any of this sounds familiar, it's because he undertook almost the exact same process when he became U.S. manager. (Remember the unceremonious dumping of captain Carlos Bocanegra?)
Germany's national team wasn't dysfunctional when Klinsmann arrived, exactly. But since winning Euro '96, with Klinsmann on the team, it had been eliminated by Croatia in the quarterfinals in France '98, taking a 3-0 battering, and been bounced from Euro 2000 and '04 in the group stages. Yes, the Germans had reached the final of the 2002 World Cup, but they had often been outplayed and rode the otherworldly performances of Kahn.
Relatively speaking, the USA might have in fact been better off when Klinsmann was put in charge – when put in historical perspective, anyway – but it, too, seemed to be stagnating, if not regressing. As Klinsmann put it to Honigstein, one of his biggest challenges with the U.S. was to address the American soccer scene's insecurity that bordered on self-loathing.
"Because there is no history of success, American football doesn't have self-assurance, it puts itself down," Klinsmann says in "Das Reboot." "It has taken a while to get to the point where we feel that we can at least dominate our region, that we can beat our local rivals Mexico. But then you come up against Belgium [in the round of 16 at the World Cup in Brazil] with their famous players from famous European clubs, and your brain starts turning and then you feel quite small."
Some context is necessary here, of course. While Klinsmann was heavily criticized early on in his German tenure – just as he is now with the U.S. – he turned things around relatively quickly. But he had the benefit of inheriting a stronger team and working with a masterful assistant in Jogi Loew, who took care of tactics and a lot of the coaching. Klinsmann hasn't had those luxuries stateside, and the process has predictably taken far longer to yield dividends – of which there have been few thus far.
But in the eagerness for Klinsmann to duplicate his German blueprint, a crucial difference was overlooked. As Honigstein exposes it – albeit probably not with the express intention of undermining the justification used to appoint Klinsmann here – Germany benefited from an enormous effort to develop better players that predated Klinsmann.
After Euro '96, then-Germany manager Berti Vogts – now a consultant to Klinsmann at U.S. Soccer – began calling for an expansion to the national youth development. He was initially ignored because Germany was deemed all but invincible then, but when results began to slip, significant investments were gradually made.
Eventually, 366 regional training centers – spread out so that no German boy would be further than 15 miles from one – were opened where just about every teenager in the country would get an additional technique-focused session every week, in addition to his club practice. Some 14,000 teenaged boys are now coached and assessed by federation coaches there. Germany's pro clubs, meanwhile, were forced and incentivized to start and invest in their youth academies. This vast training and scouting network unearthed new talent that would otherwise have been overlooked, like Real Madrid star Toni Kroos, and gave the youth national teams abundant choice. Since 2007, Germany has medaled seven times at the Under-17 and Under-19 European Championships and the Under-17 World Cup.
Today, Germany has a vast yet tightly orchestrated youth system, a mechanism that has virtually no cracks for talent to slip through and a meticulous curriculum that ensures prospects are developed according to best practices. Of the 23 players on Germany's roster when it won the 2014 World Cup, 21 passed through this new apparatus. The two who didn't, Miroslav Klose and Roman Weidenfeller, came up before the youth system was overhauled.
That same process has been put into motion in the U.S., but whereas it was beginning to bear plump and succulent fruits by the time Klinsmann took the German job – namely in the form of world beaters Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger – it is still in its infancy in the U.S. and nowhere close to being ready to consistently stock his talent pool.
Go back to that day, more than four years ago, when he was appointed and Klinsmann's own words on the subject are actually strikingly prescient.
"It is really down to what comes through the youth ranks over the next years in order to see if you can ever compete for a World Cup final," he said then. "It will take a tremendous amount of hours for the kids to play the game in order to one day break into the top four in the world. … I think we're still quite a long way away from that, but it should be your goal. … It all starts on the grassroots level. I can't promise anything."
Immense efforts have been made in recent years to upgrade American youth development, accelerating during the Klinsmann era. But it's plain that the U.S. lags many years, perhaps decades, behind Germany. That's no great shame, of course. Germany is an elite soccer nation with four World Cup titles and more semifinal and final appearances than any other country. But it does underpin Klinsmann's difficulties in replicating his success with the U.S.
Compare the expenditures alone. Although the U.S. has roughly four times Germany's population and gross domestic product, the United States Soccer Federation's spending on youth soccer is much less than that of the Deutscher Fussball Bund (DFB). The DFB's 366 regional training centers alone operate at an annual budget of $22.5 million – and that's at the low conversion rate to the Euro right now. In its most recent fiscal year, U.S. Soccer spent $14.4 million on "youth national teams and player development," which would include both the men's and women's programs and the significant cost of travel to youth national team tournaments.
Meanwhile, Germany's youth academies run by professional clubs, the other major drivers of player development, have spent more than a billion dollars over the last decade and a half and currently burn through $135 million per season. (They have also had extraordinary success: In 2011, 10 years after becoming mandatory, the academies provided 52 percent of Bundesliga players.) By contrast, two years ago, Major League Soccer proudly touted that its academies had reached a combined outlay of $20 million. And while that's a significant investment by such a young league, comprising fewer teams and academies, it underscores the gap.
While his legacy with Germany is broad and he has rightly been given a fair deal of the credit for the 2014 World Cup title, Klinsmann was only actually in charge of Die Mannschaft a fortnight short of two years. It's now been more than four years and three months since he took the U.S. job, and the program is still very much covered in scaffolding as the German embarks on his second World Cup qualifying campaign with the USA on Friday – and in the midst of something of an identity crisis, in fact.
In his second national team gig, Klinsmann simply hasn't delivered the way he did in his first. But say what you will about his spiraling performance as USMNT head coach and U.S. Soccer's technical director – and there is much to be said – looking back on it now, it was never realistic to expect Klinsmann to do for the U.S. what he did for Germany. Not in anything close to the same timeframe, anyway.
And in all likelihood, it will take more than a decade from his appointment to discern his true legacy.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.