Development at the youth level and discovering a national identity are the two biggest challenges facing the U.S. men’s national soccer team, new coach Jurgen Klinsmann said today.
He said the U.S. still has a long way to go to be a top-10 soccer nation.
Klinsmann, a 47-year-old former World Cup player for Germany, was appointed the 35th coach in the history of the U.S. program on July 29, one day after Bob Bradley was fired. Klinsmann said that with America’s “melting pot” culture, finding an identity will be paramount to the team’s success.
“Soccer in a certain way reflects the culture of the country,” Klinsmann said at a news conference in New York. “One of my challenges will be to find a way to find a U.S. team to represent its country. What should be the style of play? Is it more proactive and aggressive, or is it more a reacting style of play?”
Klinsmann, who coached the German national team to a third- place finish in the 2006 World Cup, cited the youth soccer structure, its heightened emphasis on education and Major League Soccer as three of the principle differences between the U.S. sport and programs in Europe and South America. Youth soccer in those regions is more structured, and players often turn professional without attending college.
“I think it is important over the next three years that I have a lot of conversation with people involved in the game here to find a way to define that style and what suits us best,” he said.
Klinsmann has lived in America for 13 years and said he considers his family “more American than German.” He said he intends to remain close with former national players Claudio Reyna, now U.S. Soccer’s youth technical director, and Tab Ramos, who coaches the under-20 team.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said Klinsmann was chosen because of his experience in the international game and his familiarity with America. He called this the start of a “new era.”
“Whenever we think about an international coach, will they know America?” Gulati told reporters. “Will they know the difference between Duke and the Portland Timbers. All things that are specific to the U.S. Jurgen’s got that.”
A Southern California resident, Klinsmann said he thought about coaching the U.S. team before he took the reins of the German national team in July 2004.
“I always kind of stayed deeply connect with the U.S.,” he said.
Bradley had a 43-25-12 record in his five years as U.S. coach, leading the team to the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup title and a runner-up spot at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. The U.S. reached the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, where it lost to Ghana after extra time, and this summer blew a 2-0 lead in losing 4-2 to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, in his final two major tournaments.
Klinsmann said he has been impressed with the progress that American soccer made under Bradley and his predecessor, Bruce Arena. The team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990 and the MLS has grown to 18 teams, with another expansion coming next season.
“It’s come a long way, soccer in the United States, and I am now getting the opportunity to move it further,” Klinsmann said. “The awareness is just getting bigger and bigger. It’s growing -- you can’t stop soccer anymore in this country.”
Klinsmann said expectations will be different than when he coached in Germany, where anything but a World Cup final was a disappointment. In America, getting through the group stages is important and winning a quarterfinal game is “huge,” he said.
“There are a lot of different challenges ahead of us, especially in the foundation level, and the foundation is youth,” Klinsmann said. “This is what is still really missing compared to the leading soccer nations around the world -- the amount of time kids play the game.”
Klinsmann said he would like to see the “very hectic” style of play in the MLS settle down and become more technical, and for young Americans to grow more comfortable when possessing the ball.
“It’s come a long way, but we have quite a way to go still to break into the top 10 in the world,” Klinsmann said. “We need to be realistic that we do not belong there now.”