Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jurgen moves on from Brussels with love

Jürgen Klinsmann loves his job. And that is good.

I am used to England managers on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and the last time I watched Klinsmann in a press conference, before the 2006 World Cup, he was defensive and at times brittle as German inquisitors pressed him on a clearly ropey eleven's chances of victory.

He had the last laugh, as the Mannschaft reached the semi-finals and lost to the eventual winners with credit.

Now he looks happier and stress-free. That much was clear from his face and voice after the defeat by Belgium last week. It is the honeymoon period you see, and the endorphins are flowing. It felt odd seeing a coach so relaxed after a defeat, as Klinsmann waxed lyrically about Jose Torres' creativity and joked about the linesman.

Such an air of well-being wafted through the press room, we almost forgot his team had lost. It made a nice change from the tad of tetchiness which filled the air when Bob Bradley explained away a loss on the road, as everyone fumbled for the inescapable conclusion that the United States still had not reached the level of Europe's elite.

Every match the USMNT plays away is a test of reputation, although Klinsmann rejected my suggestion that he would prefer to beat European teams given his background. But while winning in Austria and Poland does not register for long, beating a top European side on their home soil would resonate. US Soccer is angling for another Euro challenge in February, although the hot dates are apparently already taken.

The last time I had been at the Heysel was for Belgium v USA, in the run-up to France 1998. Afterwards John Harkes regaled me with tales of 'Big Ron' Atkinson at Sheffield Wednesday as Steve Sampson brushed past him on his way to the bus. Little did the jovial captain know he was not going to the World Cup again.

Harkesy was there again on Tuesday, as were former US skippers Earnie Stewart and Claudio Reyna, reassuring reminders of past glories. 2-0 to Belgium was the score in 1998, so a sort of improvement occurred, though that is the sort of European team the US should be hopeful of beating.

With a recognised continental star now at the helm, the interest level and respect for the US is sure to rise, but of course it is results that count. Beyond knowing Klinsmann loves all things American, we in Europe do not really know what he is planning in his new job or what to expect from his USMNT.

Over two decades ago I read in World Soccer that he intended to hang up his boots at the age of 28 and backpack with a friend around the USA. He tarried, but eleven years since he put down roots across the pond Klinsmann still seems to be living his dream.

He certainly is a charmer. Germans, with the exception perhaps of Philipp Lahm and Lothar Matthaus, talk fondly about 'Klinsi', while England, which previously labelled him as a humourless actor on the field, found itself besotted with him since he began his first press conference by asking if London had a good diving school. When the fabulous baking boy from Stuttgart left Tottenham after only a season, we all felt down, and Anglo-German relations had never been so buoyant since Bert Trautmann won the FA Cup with a broken neck.

From what I could tell in Brussels, US Soccer seems in awe of him too and unsure how they should handle such a major personality. I asked officials if Klinsmann's 'grand projet' of rebuilding the American system from top to bottom had been set in train yet.

"He's just listening for now," was the reply. "He's speaking to everyone and getting to know them." If there is a big plan for American soccer, S.Prairie Avenue is yet to hear about it. As far as they are aware, Klinsmann is their men's first-team coach, but they seem to be waiting for him to unfurl something bigger.

Was there much to learn from that wet night at the Heysel? Certainly, as the US seemed confused about their new mission. Klinsmann assured us afterwards there were golden youngsters on the horizon. Well they cannot come quickly enough as the current roster is unconvincing. It seems defeatist to blame one's tools, but with no Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore isolated, the attack is blunt, and while Clint Dempsey remains a class act, he needs mindreaders to make supporting runs or else he dribbles to little avail.

Agents buzzing around Brek Shea? I came home saying how much I had noticed Eden Hazard, plus Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel and EPL stalwarts Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany, although Romelu Lukaku must do better.

A watertight system like Greece's in Euro 2004, or a mesmeric manager can make up for a dearth of talent, but it is too early to tell if the US has either. The expectation level is less than Germany's at least, which means less flak, and everyone who matters is on Klinsmann's side for the foreseeable future.

But let us not get complacent about Jürgen's honeymoon either. It has been less than two months and only three games, yet the longer you go without winning the more you start questioning your self-belief.

The bottom line is do not panic, and with Honduras and Ecuador on tap, the messy night in the King Badouin stadium is already being filed away, its lessons (hopefully) learned.

-Sean O'Conor, London


TrueCrew said...

Harkes knew in the runup he'd slept with Wynalda's wife.

He was well aware of the situation he put himself in.

Mike said...

Any thoughts on the rumor of Chandler switching back to Germany? It is coming from Sanneh who has connections there.

Patrick said...

I don't think you can judge talent level in friendlies. Especially a B+ side that is jet lagged against the team that just played the Euro qualifier at home.

What you can do is look at how many players a country has on top CL teams. The USA has none. Howard and Dempsey could play for a Top Six EPL team. Cherundolo and Holden are in one of the top 4 leagues; maybe Bradley too. After that, everyone is in second or third leagues.

Some of this is bias (outside goalkeepers) that only started to change with McBride and then Dempsey. I think the great missed opportunity of this generation is that Donovan chose the easy route and did not elevate his game to be the first American starting in the CL knock-out stage.

Greg Seltzer said...

@ Mike: I'm after it.

J.D. Springer said...


Maybe that's why Harkes was smiling.