Klinsmann vs. Everyone

I am tired.

As you probably know by now, Don Garber held an impromptu press conference today. During it, he offered an impassioned rebuttal to what he saw as a slight from Jurgen Klinsmann towards Major League Soccer. There are almost certainly behind-the-scenes reasons for Garber to pick up the microphone, but to an outsider it reflects insecurity and pettiness. Garber doesn’t come off looking great in this fight. But Klinsmann has been picking a lot of fights lately.

Klinsmann has set himself up as an anti-US-establishment figure, and the “Klinsmann vs. the system” narrative has been a constant since he began. He arrived on the job as USMNT head coach with promises of overhaul and change, most notably the youth system. Most people recognize that there are flaws in the American soccer structure, and so we embraced Klinsmann as a harbinger of change. After some early stumbles, the USMNT saw success under Klinsmann in last year’s World Cup qualifying. On the field success is the best way for a manager to endear himself to a fanbase.

With the security of a long-term contract given to him following the World Cup draw, Klinsmann has broadened his targets. First: Donovan. This duel had personal aspects, but it was also symbolic. To really grab the attention of American soccer and the media, Klinsmann slaughtered its most sacred cow. Where fans and proponents of US Soccer viewed Donovan as embodying its best aspects and potential, Klinsmann saw the negative aspects and unfulfilled potential. Donovan stayed in MLS rather than go to Europe, and the media often praised him for accomplishments that are small on an international stage.

And here is where Klinsmann, if he didn’t have them before, spawned enemies. Lots of them, particularly from American media outlets that are unaccustomed to soccer and only view Klinsmann as a foreign interloper telling us how to do our jobs. Xenophobic sportswriters aside, even parts of the soccer media were skeptical of the decision. Some Klinsmann supporters noted that the decision got the American mainstream talking about the make up of a World Cup squad weeks before the tournament, which was a first.

After a fairly successful World Cup run (though that assessment is not shared by everyone), the furor surrounding American soccer largely died off. There were critics who noted that Michael Bradley wasn’t in his best position, that Klinsmann had no replacement for Jozy Altidore, and that Donovan could have offered more than Brad Davis or Mix Diskerud or Timmy Chandley. But largely there was peace, and American soccer’s supporters were just thrilled with the attention given to the World Cup.

The peace was shattered about a week ago. Donovan’s farewell match was always going to be a testy moment, but he and Klinsmann each added fuel to the fire in the build up. Donovan seemed to confirm suspicions that the rift was more personal than tactical, and Klinsmann said that Donovan could have done more in his career, a statement both vague and all-meaning depending on how you wanted to read it. Klinsmann also selected an NASL player for the friendly squad and poked the sleeping bear of promotion and relegation. ESPN dedicated a halftime discussion to pro/rel, and nothing new was said because nothing new is ever said in pro/rel debates.

Effectively, this is is all the same battle. Pro/rel vs. closed shop, Europe vs. MLS, Klinsmann vs. Donovan, Klinsmann vs. Garber. These are all different names for arguments that, if they aren’t exactly the same, have an awful lot in common. They are about soccer, but they are also about insecurity and authenticity and identity and setting the course for the still nebulous American soccer culture. These arguments are old, divisive, and tiresome, and neither press conference nor blog post will bring us any closer to resolving them.

Since taking charge of the USMNT in 2011, Jurgen Klinsmann’s mouth has garnered more attention than his managerial ability. I happen to think he’s a fairly good manager, even if his best talent is attracting talented dual-nationals. But intentionally and otherwise he has served as a wedge in the American soccer community.

There are some who’ll say that we needed to have the discussions Klinsmann has sparked. That may be true, but I think we can have them without the vitriol and politicization that they currently accompany. Everyone involved here wants what’s best for American soccer. There are disagreements on what is best for American soccer. But we can all agree that the petty arguments and drama of the past week are not it.

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