For a player tied for sixth-most goals scored in World Cup history, Jürgen Klinsmann carries a lot of clout. All the more so in the U.S., a country with an underwhelming World Cup past. Given free reign over the country’s soccer program, the entrenched Klinsmann brought a unique strategy in compiling the 2014 U.S. World Cup roster.
By courting international players, specifically those eligible through dual citizenship – at the expense of more experienced local talent – Klinsmann is betting on the superior qualities of a European player for World Cup success in order to, finally, popularize the sport in America.
The United States is the last frontier for FIFA. The 1994 World Cup was awarded to the U.S. to showcase all that the sport has to offer to American fandom. Although the tournament was ultimately successful, it failed to produce a decisive breakthrough for soccer as a U.S. major league sport. True, the U.S. youth soccer program has the most players in the world – the number of high school soccer players has doubled since it hosted the World Cup. Still, the very best athletes in the U.S. play basketball or football while the best athletes in the rest of the world play soccer.
The lack of top notch talent has been detrimental to Major League Soccer (‘MLS’). The U.S. version of the professional league was founded on the heels of the anticipated 1994 World Cup success. Many believed that the heightened exposure of the sport would poach local athletes away from the lure of the NFL or the NBA. It didn't materialize. Part of the issue may be the MLS compensation structure. No kid dreams of making an office-like salary of $100,000, the MLS median, when the NBA equivalent is around $5 million.
To its credit, the MLS is attempting to address what it knows to be an inadequate system to produce world class soccer players for the national team. The Designated Player Rule, nicknamed the “Beckham Rule” for its first beneficiary, allowed MLS teams to sign players to lucrative salaries without having to adhere to the salary cap. U.S. teams could now compete with its European counterparts in attracting world-class players such Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane, Rafael Márquez and, now, David Villa.
Brilliant in theory, paltry in reality. For one, these star players only join the MLS at the very end of their playing careers when few European clubs are in pursuit of their services. For another, adding one good player doesn’t significantly improve the overall performance or ethos of the full 11. Yet another factor is that players with real abilities will always explore options overseas, disrupting the continuity of the team. The MLS is to the Premier League as the Euroleague is to the NBA.
MLS play, therefore, remains inferior. It leaves a hole in professional U.S. soccer that prevents the development of local players imbued with the requisite competitive culture, creativity and skills to rival the Ronaldos and Messis of the world.
Not that U.S. nationals haven’t played in Europe. The 2010 World Cup version of the USMNT had plenty of big club experience. Clint Dempsey had just become only the fifth American to regularly start for a Premiere League team, starring as the main striker for Fulham. Tim Howard became an Everton mainstay. Michael Bradley started for Germany’s Borussia Mönchengladbach. DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu had won the Scottish league title with Rangers. AC Milan signed Oguchi Onyewu. It wasn’t enough. The USMNT didn’t make it out of the group stage and its manager was summarily dismissed.
Something was missing.
As Klinsmann took control of the USMNT, he seemed to realize that U.S-bred players would not bring immediate success in the upcoming World Cup in Brazil. Although youth soccer was thriving and U.S. players were gaining ground internationally, Klinsmann understands that the sport cannot be universally embraced in the U.S. until the USMNT achieves real success on the world stage. Americans like to lead, to be the best and, so far, U.S. soccer has not measured up.
The realization for Klinsmann was that it was not possible for the U.S. to compete in a World Cup under its current state of affairs. It wasn’t about having big club experience or a solid collection of caps. It was something more fundamental.
As a Euro-centric figure, Klinsmann can be expected to tout the creative supremacy and confidence of the European player. He needed fast players who weren’t afraid to dictate the pace, to attack the opponents – to not be stifled by the stigma of a U.S. soccer player. Escaping the “Group of Death” would require real chutzpah, known only to actual Europeans that lived and breathed the game since birth. Yet, ideally there would still be something American about the team – a togetherness without ego playing as an underdog.
Fortunately, most European countries, as well as the U.S., allow dual citizenship.
Klinsmann began courting young, generally inexperienced Europeans with one American parent, making them eligible for U.S. citizenship and the USMNT. Many were the offspring of U.S. military servicemen stationed in Germany. The coach didn’t care whether Mikkel Diskerud played in Norway, a second-rate soccer country, or whether they barely sniffed any playing time with their clubs, like Julian Green.
As citizens of other countries, a number of these players even had previous commitments to other national teams. Fabian Johnson (U21), John Brooks (U20) and Green (U19) had all played their most recent international caps with Germany’s youth national teams. Aron Jóhannsson had played with Iceland’s U21 national team. Jermaine Jones, the veteran midfielder, made three appearances in friendlies for Germany’s main national team in 2008. To forge on with the experiment, Klinsmann carefully courted and prodded these players in order to ensure they elected the USMNT as their sole allegiance, not only this year but in the future too. This election was only made possible by a change in FIFA rules of eligibility.
As recent as five years ago, a player could not participate in a FIFA tournament representing a country that he may be a citizen of, yet has not lived in. This residency clause required continuous residence “…on the territory of the relevant Association for at least two years,” prior to being eligible to join the national team. In 2009, this clause was completely removed, providing Klinsmann with the opportunity he sought to woo foreign ingenuity. As long as the player had not been capped or played in an official competition for a nation, he was fair game for any nation that he can be made a citizen of.
Persuading a dual citizen to switch national allegiances is not a new concept. With 27 goals, Diego Costa led this year’s Atlético Madrid to the La Liga title against the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. A Brazilian native, Costa nevertheless elected to suit up for Spain in this World Cup and ensured that Spain would be the only national team for which he is eligible to play for the remainder of his career. Nevertheless, the dual citizen choosing among national teams is the exception rather than the rule.
For his part, Klinsmann retooled most of the U.S. World Cup roster – with 7 of the 20 outfield players who lived most, if not all, of their lives abroad. Another USMNT member and a second generation American, Alejandro Bedoya, played for a U.S. college but purposefully avoided the MLS draft to seek playing opportunities in Europe. None of them played in MLS. The core of the roster would be young, creative and undaunted.
As these players now became officially capped with the U.S., Klinsmann also ensured that they would forever be tied with the USMNT. Germany’s national team, which had invested considerable resources in cultivating their potential, would now be robbed of any future benefits. From that standpoint, 18-year-old Julian Green is a particularly attractive asset – one that the MLS is seemingly unable to produce.
Klinsmann’s disdain for the MLS became further evident in his remarks regarding transactions involving the USMNT’s best players and holdovers from the 2010 team: Dempsey and Bradley.
After a less-than-successful stint with Tottenham Hotspur as the highest paid U.S. soccer player of all-time, Dempsey took an even higher payday to return to the MLS in 2013. Bradley seemed to be thriving with Roma but he also chose a MLS return in 2014 after having been made, along with Dempsey, one of the richest offers ever to an American player by a MLS team. Ironically, the Beckham Rule, meant to attract the best foreign talent to the U.S., was now used on returning American players – seemingly for publicity.
These apparent money-grab moves by his best players confounded Klinsmann. On ESPN’s excellent documentary series “Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil,” Klinsmann explicitly expresses disappointment with their transfer decisions as it sacrifices exposure to world-class competition. It almost put a damper on his plan to include players that can handle the quality of play in a World Cup. Dempsey and Bradley remained on the team, but Landon Donovan – the most accomplished player in U.S. history and a MLS staple – was booted.
Klinsmann’s gamble paid off immediately. The USMNT’s first World Cup game was against Ghana, a nemesis that devastatingly ousted the U.S. from the last two Cups. With eight minutes to go in the game, Ghana scored an equalizer that looked to end the game in a draw. But only four minutes later, Brooks, the young German-American, headed in the winner in his fifth cap for the U.S. team.
In the second “Group of Death“ game, Portugal went ahead on a devastating mistake by the U.S. defense. Having clawed itself back into the game, another German native, Jermaine Jones, scored a stunning equalizer. The game, which eventually ended in a 2-2 draw, put the U.S. on the brink of qualifying for the Round of 16. It will be only the fourth time in the modern World Cup era that the USMNT advances out of the group stage.
Should the USMNT advance into the semifinal or beyond, soccer would surely get on the map in the U.S. Already, more Americans than ever are watching this World Cup. Only this combination of results and exposure could propel the popularity of soccer to levels of a U.S. major-league sport. Soccer would finally be able to attract the quality of athlete on par with the European and South American powerhouses.
Klinsmann’s solution of injecting U.S. soccer with international flair would then have the eternal credit of reinventing the sport on these shores.