By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
Jurgen Klinsmann’s hiring five years ago was supposed to make America a great soccer nation.
Worse, it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Klinsmann talked a great game. He promised skilled, ambitious, attack-minded teams instead of relying on the tried-and-true formula of athleticism, luck and overworked goalkeepers that marked the nation’s modest climb in the world rankings up to that point. And he smartly looked back to his native Germany for a plan to make soccer sexy in his adopted homeland.
He vowed the U.S. team’s youth programs would leave no gem undiscovered or community overlooked in its search for talent. He urged fans to hold him and his players accountable. He made clear that anyone with a valid U.S. passport would be welcomed on-board to develop a uniquely “American style” of playing the world’s game.
What Klinsmann left behind, though, is a team with no discernible style that is even less American — measured by home-grown-or-developed players — and hardly more competitive than the one he inherited. Don’t expect that to change under Bruce Arena, who is even more of a pragmatist than he was during his first stint (1998-2006) in charge.
U.S. soccer’s best hope, at least for the foreseeable future, remains the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
There’s no reason to blame either Klinsmann or Arena for that. The problem with soccer in America is much bigger than either man. For all the initiatives and money that’s been poured into the game over the last three decades, from kids’ recreational programs to colleges to Major League Soccer, we still haven’t produced even one field player good enough to crack the starting lineup for traditional powers like Germany, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Argentina and Brazil.
Nothing will change until that does.
America still hasn’t developed a real soccer culture. It was supposed to happen after the 1994 World Cup was played here, or after the launch of the MLS, or after the U.S. team under Arena reached the quarterfinals in 2002, even after millions began tuning in each season to watch the matches in the Premier League and Bundesliga, and turning out in droves for World Cup viewing parties every four years.
But having dedicated fans doesn’t necessarily translate into developing great players. Predictions of a soccer boom has done more to hamstring the real development of the game here than all those well-organized, well-meaning parents who became youth coaches with no more than a vague idea of how it’s played. If you want to know how great a deficit that puts youngsters growing up here, think of it this way.
If you gathered a handful of 10-year-olds from the remote corners of Brazil and dropped a ball at their feet in a 10-by-10-foot room, they’d position themselves quickly enough to pass the ball three times before rolling it through the doorway without a hitch. Hand a basketball to a similarly selected group of American kids and make the hoop the target and you’d see much the same organization.
Whether soccer will ever be on an equal footing with the big American sports is anyone’s guess. The best athletes in this nation of 300-million plus are still headed to the NBA or NFL first. Soccer is finally competing with the NHL, Major League Baseball and a few other sports for talented youngsters.
But the most promising prospects — like Christian Pulisic, only 18 and arguably already the most skilled player in the U.S. program, and a regular for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s Bundesliga — only develop by going outside the U.S. national team’s grasp.
Both Klinsmann and Arena understood that long ago. Ever the optimist, Klinsmann believed he could meld all those different individual talents and playing styles in the short time the team was called in for national team duty, the way the other world powers have always done. He even doubled down on the idea by importing as many German-Americans as he could find, ruffling plenty of feathers in both the squad and the U.S. federation.
Arena won’t repeat that mistake. Instead of a grand plan to make America great, he’ll quickly cobble together a team that is long on veterans and will cut down on mistakes. He’ll pack the defense, count on good-to-great goalkeeping every time out and take his chances in a sudden counterattack.
It won’t make anyone’s heart race, but it may be enough to turn around Klinsmann’s disastrous 0-2 start in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup and produce the occasional upset, much as the 2002 team did.
Toward the end of his re-introduction to the U.S. media on a conference call Tuesday, Arena was asked whether there was an “American style” of playing.
“You style is dictated by the qualities of your players,” he replied. “We are who we are.”