Imagine you are the manager of a national team and two of your best players just made career moves you deem to be backward steps in their evolutions as players. You weren’t crazy about either move, but a bigger concern for you is the message it might send to the next generation of players. You have recently signed a new contract keeping you around for two World Cups and while outright criticizing two of your best players just four months before a World Cup isn’t advisable, you feel you need to let it be known where you stand philosophically.
What do you do?
What Jurgen Klinsmann chose to do is send a not-so-subtle message to the U.S. national team pool, both current and future, about striving for the highest levels of the game. He laid out a challenge of sorts by saying that, in his view, Americans have the talent but not the confidence to challenge for places at the highest levels of the game.
“It needs to take the U.S. team, in a World Cup to go into at least a quarterfinal, if not a semifinal, to give more credibility to American players," Klinsmann said in a TV interview with ESPN. "But it’s also the American players, when they go to Europe, to prove it, that they become big players in Europe. So it's also down to do they have the belief? They have the qualities, but do they have the belief?
“Because you go into a European top club and if you want to play in a top five, six teams in England or in Germany or in Italy, you have 15, 16, 17 national team players on the roster. So you have to kick somebody out. I think the American player still doesn’t have this last belief that they can kick somebody out. This is something that they have to build.”
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For Klinsmann, the key goal for American players should not only be to play in Europe, but to reach the highest levels of European club soccer, which means competing in the UEFA Champions League.
“We need players one day, like Brazil, like Argentina, that play Champions League. Champions League in Europe is the crème de la crème," he said. "This is where the trend is made in the Champions League. In European Champions League. The way they play this year in the Champions League, you will see it in the World Cup in Brazil in summer. The systems, the approaches, because it is the best of the best. We do not have players there.
"My wish is that, maybe after the World Cup, we get Jozy Altidore, our No. 9, into a Champions League team, or Tim Howard becomes goalkeeper of a big, big team. We have good players, but we don’t have the belief yet that we belong in there.”
Klinsmann’s didn’t say anything that most followers of the national team disagree with, except maybe for the whole “Americans don’t have the belief yet” part. A curious message indeed because it leaves you wondering just who he might be referring to.
It isn’t tough to figure out who he was talking about. Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley left two Champions League contenders in top European leagues to return to big paydays in Major League Soccer. To some, those decisions could be seen as capitulation on the part of the players who chose to get paid rather than keep fighting to climb the stature ladder in Europe. Clearly, Klinsmann feels this way, though he stops short of calling out the two U.S. national team stars by name.
In the case of Dempsey, he didn’t really give up Champions League soccer out of a lack of belief so much as he made a calculated decision to grab the last big payday of his career rather than facing a seriously uncertain future at Tottenham. MLS and Seattle made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and his decision to take a payday bigger than any he could find in Europe wasn’t really about fear, but about making a reasonable career decision.
Bradley’s decision to return to MLS was far more of a stunner, not just for U.S. fans, but for Klinsmann. At 26, Bradley still figured to have as many as a half-dozen more years in Europe, and as much as he wasn’t a regular starter at AS Roma, he did get his share of playing time. He could have easily stuck out the rest of the year in Italy, but would it really have been a wise move to say no to Toronto FC’s astronomical offer when his future at Roma was pretty unclear? And does anybody honestly think Bradley of all people left Roma out of fear of competing for playing time, something he’d been doing in Europe for the past eight years?
Who else exactly could Klinsmann have been talking about? There isn’t a long list of American players turning down offers from Champions League clubs, at least not for lesser challenges. Sure, Altidore could have gone to PSV Eindhoven last summer and been much closer to Champions League soccer, but nobody would call moving to the English Premier League a lesser challenge. As for Howard, there isn’t a line of Champions League teams beating down his door even as he continues to put together strong seasons in England.
|Coming Home |
|Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey may be the headliners for returning U.S. national team players, but they haven't been alone in coming back to the States. Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, Maurice Edu and Michael Parkhurst have all returned to Major League Soccer, having decided to ink large deals to keep them in North America. Will the spat of returning players help improve MLS to the point that the league produces more quality for the national team, or will the smaller number of top players in Europe be an issue for the U.S. national team in the long run?|
Klinsmann’s comments weren’t about sending a message to Dempsey and Bradley though, because let’s face it, the ship has sailed on both those players achieving Klinsmann’s ideal. No, what the U.S. head coach was probably trying to do in making those comments was to send a message to the players still plying their trade in Europe, and the next generation of talent coming up the pipeline.
The last thing Klinsmann wants is up-and-coming talent to settle for big paydays in MLS rather than challenge themselves by striving for playing time in big teams across Europe.
If Klinsmann is really worried about Dempsey, and more so Bradley, establishing a new trend for American players, he really shouldn’t be just yet. Both Dempsey and Bradley are exceptions to the rule. Two American players who turned multiple years of success in Europe and with the national team, which helped raise their stock and profile enough to lead MLS teams to break the bank with mega-deals that paid well above market value for them.
That hasn’t stopped there from suddenly being a belief among some American fans that we could see more top Americans coming to MLS, like Altidore or Aron Johannsson, in the hear future. Don’t hold your breath folks. Younger American players doing well in Europe will stay in Europe because none of them have achieved the type of status that will lead to the kind of gigantic offer from MLS it would take to make MLS an option over Europe.
Hearing Klinsmann’s comments makes you wonder how much he is concerned about a growing trend. Dempsey and Bradley aren’t the only U.S. regulars to recently sign deals with MLS. Omar Gonzalez inked a multi-million dollar deal, and Matt Besler and Graham Zusi are both on long-term deals as well.
The reality is there is no mass exodus of Americans leaving Europe. Michael Parkhurst hit his peak by signing with a Bundesliga club and never seeing the field. Maurice Edu had spent more than a year wallowing in obscurity at Stoke City. They both moved to MLS because, for both, MLS was about on par with the options they had. Neither really turned down high-level Champions League Soccer.
A greater concern is the pipeline heading the other way and getting players like Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez and younger prospects like Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin to make moves to Europe sooner than later. MLS hasn’t really shown a readiness to start splashing big bucks on young talent (Gonzalez being the exception) just yet, and if Klinsmann’s comments are resonating with anybody, it is with the younger generation who are surely aware Klinsmann is going to be around a while as U.S. head coach.
Klinsmann is absolutely right about there needing to be more Americans playing in UEFA Champions League to help increase the level of quality on the U.S. team. He is also right that a deep run in this summer’s World Cup would help the entire U.S. player pool’s profile overseas, which could lead to improved opportunities.
All that said, Klinsmann was probably reaching just a bit with the whole “Americans don’t believe” notion. The dearth of Americans playing Champions League soccer hasn’t been about a lack of belief, but a lack of talent, and until the talent level in the U.S. pool rises enough to make ignoring it impossible for bigger European clubs, we will continue to wonder just when Americans will be competing in the highest level of club soccer in the world.
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