By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 20, 2013) US Soccer Players - United States National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has rarely passed on an opportunity to suggest ways Major League Soccer could improve itself. His dual laments that the American season is too short and the environment not soccer-centric enough are constant refrains as he simultaneously coaches the senior squad and attempts to philosophically transform American soccer. It’s not that Klinsmann doesn’t believe MLS is good enough to produce quality players, he just clearly thinks it could be doing more.
That explains why Klinsmann has spent so much of his tenure as US coach pushing MLS players to challenge themselves abroad and exhibiting a clear preference for foreign-based players. In those cases when Klinsmann does call-up domestic talent, it’s typically due to issues of depth. His most recent roster for crucial Hexagonal World Cup qualifying games against Costa Rica at home and on the road against Mexico is the latest example. Faced with a rash of poorly timed injuries, Klinsmann called in a group of defenders with just two foreign-based players.
Preferences go out of the window in times of great need, like those the Americans are facing now with games against the top two teams in the region in a span of five days. Instead of a retinue of players getting regular time in Europe ready to step in, Klinsmann has found ready - and match fit - replacements in Major League Soccer. His attitude about the league’s ability to produce international quality players gets set aside mostly because he has no other choice.
Sitting on the bench in Europe, no matter the pedigree of the club or the level of the league, is no substitute for playing. Even MLS players, who Klinsmann seems to be slowly warming to, are better options than idle names once written in ink on the National Team lineup sheet. Say what you want about Klinsmann’s methods, but he’s clearly not blind to that fact.
There’s reason to think that Klinsmann is coming around on just how much talent MLS has to offer. Though, if we’re being fair, his issue has never been with the quality of American players the League possesses, but in the type of professional soccer experience it provides.
For players in America, soccer is a job. For players in Europe, soccer is life. The former might be the healthier condition for long-term personal happiness, but the man in charge of the National Team sees the latter as more conducive to helping players reach their full potential on the soccer field.
Klinsmann has settled on Omar Gonzalez as the team’s center back of not only the future, but of the moment. Would he like to see Gonzalez move to Europe this summer, further stretching his capabilities in an environment Klinsmann views as more immersive, and therefore better suited to bringing out the best in players? Of course. Whether or not that happens, as long as Gonzalez is playing well and the older guard of US central defenders are struggling to get time with European clubs, Gonzalez is the best option.
The same logic applies to several defenders Klinsmann called for the round of two games coming up on Friday and Tuesday. Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, and Steve Cherundolo are unavailable, leaving Klinsmann with only MLS players as viable options for fullbacks. Enter Justin Morrow of the San Jose Earthquakes and Tony Beltran of Real Salt Lake, two players without a cap between but with whom Klinsmann is familiar through their calls-up to the MLS-heavy January camp. Klinsmann’s issue now - in the fourth round of qualifying with two of the toughest matches on the calendar back-to-back - is whether debuting those players now is too large a risk.
So why not bring those players in earlier in the cycle, when the stakes weren’t quite so high? Because despite Klinsmann’s incorrigible tinkering, he identified a select group of players to introduce during the last round and did not delve any deeper. Naturally, those were foreign-based players, keeping the potential MLS depth out of the picture. In a few cases, Klinsmann chose to play players out of position, both in qualifiers and friendlies, rather than dip further into the MLS-heavy player pool. Jose Torres, a midfielder by trade, made an appearance at left back. Maurice Edu, a defensive midfielder, played center back. If the idea was to maintain a measure of continuity, Klinsmann belied it by constantly shifting his starting lineup.
Klinsmann has never repeated a starting eleven in 24 games in charge. When the Americans hit the field against Costa Rica on Friday, it will be 25 for 25.
Thankfully, it gets somewhat easier from here, and the injury plague that hit the team will probably never again be this bad. That doesn’t necessarily mean that there won’t be a significant MLS element in the squad. Again, Klinsmann appears to have warmed, perhaps reticently, to the idea of more MLS influence. Yet, with the return of first team names, the US head coach won’t have his hand forced. MLS will continue to serve as an emergency pool of players who are regularly playing, making for better options than foreign-based stars who aren’t.
Under Klinsmann, Major League Soccer is the US National Team’s alternative. It’s there if it’s needed, even if it’s not always wanted.
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