By Jeff Carlisle
Jurgen Klinsmann is a man with a plan, but for anyone who thinks results will happen overnight, the U.S. head coach has a message -- the revolution will be televised, but it won't be rushed.
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. -- There's a story Jurgen Klinsmann likes to tell about his time playing for Monaco under the tutelage of one Arsene Wenger. In the mid-1990s, Wenger had in his squad a talented young attacker by the name of Youri Djorkaeff. Despite the player's ability, Wenger wasn't averse to leaving Djorkaeff on the bench at times. Klinsmann couldn't understand it.
"I had arguments with Arsene," recalled Klinsmann during a roundtable with reporters. "'Why don't you play Djorkaeff? Why do you put him on the bench? He is such a great talent. Our team is not AC Milan.' [Wenger] says, 'Jurgen, because he doesn't get it yet, to be a real focused professional.'
"We didn't win the championship then," Klinsmann added, "but two years later Djorkaeff was a [French] national team player, and a couple of years after that he was a World Cup winner. He actually sacrificed one of our best players to teach him those lessons."
It's a tale that reflects Klinsmann's approach to his latest job as manager of the U.S. national team. This is not to say that the American squad is overstocked with a bunch of brooding youngsters. Far from it. But Klinsmann plans to reshape the national team from the ground up, bringing younger players along when they are ready. This revolution will not be rushed.
Never mind the tactical and stylistic overhaul that is expected to take place under Klinsmann's watch. The former German national team manager is spending much of his time in fact-finding mode. Ahead of friendlies against Costa Rica on Friday and Belgium four days later, the players assembled will undergo a variety of physical tests, from blood and fitness work to stability, flexibility and functional testing. It's a process that started when he convened the team for the first time before the Aug. 10 friendly against Mexico, and it's expected to last for the first two to three months of his tenure. He'll also be looking to find the right personalities to carry out whatever system he ultimately chooses.
I want to study as many [players] as I can study because the mindset plays a huge role as you get to a World Cup. I need to figure out early what players are really up to that task.
" -- Jurgen Klinsmann
"We want to get as much information as possible," Klinsmann said. "And I want to study as many characters as I can study because the mindset plays a huge role as you get to a World Cup. So I need to figure out early what players are really up to that task, can live with the daily grind and have the right working attitude. Are they open-minded to improving themselves?
"No matter what level they are at right now," Klinsmann added, "if they are in Europe or not, I don't really care. I take them from where they are right now, and I will see if they are ready to go to the next [level]. That is really the stuff that goes on for the first couple of months. It's not that I can say, 'Ideally I would love to play this way, and it has to work out that way already.' You have to kind of slowly work toward that, because we have to see so many different aspects of it."
One area where Klinsmann has moved quickly is in naming Martin Vasquez as his No. 1 assistant coach. The U.S. manager had previously indicated that he would audition guest assistants whenever the team got together as a means of filling out the spots on his staff. But given that the two worked together when Klinsmann was manager of Bayern Munich, Vasquez's arrival is hardly a surprise.
Granted, that experience did not end positively, with Klinsmann and Vasquez both being fired late in the 2008-09 Bundesliga season, though Bayern was only three points out of first place. Vasquez's disastrous stint as manager of Chivas USA last year, when the Goats finished with the second-worst record in MLS, will raise concerns that Klinsmann isn't adding the kind of tactical knowledge that Joachim Low provided to Klinsmann when the latter managed Germany.
Yet Vasquez does have some shinier entries in his résumé. He was widely lauded for his work as an assistant with Chivas USA under both Bob Bradley and Preki. Vasquez's high-level contacts in Mexican soccer could prove critical as well, given the increasing number of Mexican-Americans playing south of the border.
"He has a tremendous knowledge about coaching teams on the field, the work on the field," Klinsmann said. "I had him at my side with Bayern Munich and he did a tremendous, good job. Obviously for the Germans, it was something very unusual. They didn't like it. They didn't like the American fitness coaches I brought in, sports psychologists I brought in with the national team program, so [the media] didn't like having a Mexican-American assistant coach at Bayern Munich. The people itself had no issues with that. He did a great job and everyone afterward was very thankful to him of the work he did. The media saw it a little bit different. But he is a 24/7 worker, and all he wants is to help players, in all aspects of it."
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But what might be even more important than Vasquez's hiring is filling the vacancies for the Olympic and U-20 national team head-coaching jobs. Klinsmann indicated that neither he nor Vasquez will take on these roles. They are highly important, full-time jobs, and Klinsmann will be focused on World Cup qualifying, which will have started when the Olympics take place in July.
The U.S. manager expects anywhere from five to seven players from the Olympic team to garner roster spots at the 2014 World Cup, assuming the U.S. qualifies. Among those being targeted are up-and-coming talents like Josh Gatt as well as Mixx Diskerud, Freddy Adu and Juan Agudelo, all of whom have seen time at the senior level. But Klinsmann indicated that he preferred these players develop with the Olympic team, rather than being rushed into the full national side, which explains in part why Gatt and Diskerud were not called in for this latest round of friendlies.
Klinsmann would like to see young players such as Juan Agudelo develop with the Olympic team.
"I don't want to do the second [step] before the first step," Klinsmann said. "The first step is now finding the right people for those [coaching] roles, and then working hand-in-hand with those guys. If I bring in now [players] just because it is reported to me that they are very talented kids, but maybe I don't have the whole picture yet, I don't do them a favor. Because then you shoot them from where they are right now into high media attention and to something that they can't fulfill. If you call in a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old, if he has the talent, then we need to make sure that they are OK with that, and can control that process from that moment on. That's where those coaches are crucial."
Klinsmann is hoping to more closely emulate the progression of players in Europe, where players are brought along more slowly, and it's no big deal if a player hasn't broken into the first team by the time he is in his early 20s.
"When we have an 18-, 19-year-old here in MLS who is an exceptional talent, then we expect from him to already be a senior national team player and to score goals like Agudelo," Klinsmann said. "This is wrong. Yes, we identify a Brek Shea and an Agudelo and youngsters like that, but at the same time, we have to be realistic and say, 'You know what? At his age, this is what we can expect from that kid.' And we're not expecting Juan Agudelo to come into the national team and score every time he plays or perform at the highest international level because we only want to see him step-by-step develop."
Such considerations will not dampen the calls for the U.S. to decide on a particular style, and quickly. Klinsmann insisted that his physical evaluations of the players will go a long way toward determining the direction the team takes. After all, it's no use implementing a more attack-minded direction if the team doesn't have the physical wherewithal to execute that plan, especially against elite teams. Klinsmann indicated that the goal is to have questions of style figured out by the time World Cup qualifying rolls around in June.
"We can't go 200 miles per hour at Spain or Brazil, otherwise we will be down by six goals at halftime," he said. "But if we play [teams] at the same level, or potentially lower, then we can have the confidence and dictate the game from the first moment on, and keep the pace throughout the game. Which may be not possible right now, but will hopefully be by next summer to say we can really go at a high pace and high intensity and dictating hopefully for 90 minutes."
To that end, Klinsmann is also attacking problems further upstream in terms of player development. Of particular concern is the MLS calendar, which runs for roughly eight months. "We need to attack that topic," said Klinsmann about the league calendar. "If they lose two or three months in the offseason, on this level, we can't afford that. It's as simple as that. We can't have a national team player take two months off; it's impossible. [Otherwise], we will never reach the global stage."
Perhaps there are some aspects of Klinsmann's revolution that need to be rushed after all.