by Aleks V | @aleksvee
It's another year, and another horde of fans and journalists pointing fingers at United States men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, or so I've heard upon reading a piece by a Mr. Leander Schaerlaeckens on Yahoo! Sports.
Mr. Schaerlaeckens makes a good point to praise LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who could once again take over the USMNT at some point in the future, but other than that, his article is but one of many unfair criticisms aimed at current NT coach Klinsmann, grounded in a few statistics, plenty of adjectives, and not much else.
When it comes to the quality of play shown by the USMNT, the problem isn't Jurgen Klinsmann - it's US soccer in general.
While the rest of the soccer world has noticeably grown and evolved in the last decade, Major League Soccer has not only stayed behind - it has gone backwards. "There's no doubt that our 20th season was the best season in our 20 years," Mr. Garber proudly told Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.
Whatever he was watching last year, it certainly wasn't MLS.
I recall tuning in to the 2015 MLS Cup Final between Columbus Crew and the Portland Timbers - supposedly a contest between the league's best two teams. Portland's Diego Valeri scored the fastest goal in the history of the MLS Cup. Rodney Wallace added to the Timbers' lead, and Crew got one back through Kei Kamara. Those were the first 18 minutes of the game, and the only worth watching. The rest looked like an amateur soccer game, a total embarrassment for the league and US soccer in general.
Things weren't always so bad. When I first began watching MLS seven or eight years ago, the picture was different. It was exciting and fast-paced. The New York Red Bulls were especially strong, with players like Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Ream, Rafael Marquez, and Dane Richards. When Angel and other good players left the Red Bulls, it was the start of a downward spiral. Years later, when the Red Bulls finally won the first silverware in their history, they sacked then coach Mike Petke and hired Jesse Marsch, whose only coaching stint was a 1 year, 3 month 12-16-6 spell with the Montreal Impact.
The degradation of MLS can be attributed to its 'business first' approach, which turns a blind eye on quality. Like the music industry, MLS enjoys being average - great for their bottom line, but not for the goal line. Good for the short-term, but not the long-term. It's a system that feeds the wallets of the few, but doesn't work for the players or the fans.
The generational shift has also contributed to the stagnation in the development of US soccer. The new generation of players isn't growing, and there's no one to replace the few talents of the last. Many of the NT's youngest players are neither MLS youth products nor play in MLS. It's no wonder that MLS is still known as 'the retirement league' for successful European players like Steven Gerrard who are long past their prime.
US soccer is behind Europe in another big way - the absence of promotion and relegation. Without a pyramidal system in which the worst two clubs automatically leave the league at the end of the season, there's little incentive for players besides just getting through another year.
If not for the USMNT players who play abroad (captain Michael Bradley previously played for AS Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach, six out of seven defenders called up for recent qualifiers play abroad, a handful of NT forwards play in the Bundesliga, and the two main goalkeepers are in the English Premier League), the situation would be much more grim.
After the USMNT's 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, I wrote of the superiority of players with experience at some of the best leagues abroad to MLS players, arguing that players who play every four days will be in better shape than those who play once a week. I also mentioned that "the U.S. can only hope to rely on homegrown talent with the improvement of its academy programs and league system."
Clubs in Europe have strong academies. MLS clubs have academies, too - the difference is in quality.
How many homegrown USMNT players have MLS academies produced, and just how good are they?
Mr. Schaerlaeckens points out the difference in the national team's performance in friendlies and official games, but fails to provide analysis. Why does the USMNT perform better in friendlies? The players have something to prove - unofficial games are the battleground for spots in the starting line-up. Why does the team sometimes under-perform in official games? The unwillingness of some of its key players to put country over club. Official games are much more physical - why give your all and risk getting injured? For some players, getting benched for their club is a much bigger deal than sitting out for a NT game. At the end of the day, the ball is round, and that's a factor as well.
Given the same players, would someone else do as good - or even better - a job as Jurgen Klinsmann? I doubt it.
Klinsmann was an excellent player and is a good coach. He needs the support of the US Soccer Federation, his players, and the fans - that'll give the national team a real chance of not only making the World Cup finals, but doing well in the tournament itself.
Note: As this article was being written, the USMNT won 4-0 in their 2018 World Cup Qualifier vs Guatemala. They've won all 10 of their home World Cup Qualifiers under Klinsmann.