Jurgen Klinsmann has grown impatient with the whining American prospects who fail to earn playing time on their clubs.
For every player like teen sensation Christian Pulisic, who broke into Borussia Dortmund’s lineup at just 17, there are multiple examples of others who flopped in Europe. The U.S. coach identified members of the under-23 team that failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, citing winger Brek Shea, who made just three Premier League appearances for Stoke during two years in England, and forward Juan Agudelo, who failed to get a work permit and never got into a game for the Potters.
Everyone, he knows, must be far better. They must want it more – like he did when he was a star forward in the 1980s and ’90s.
“We hoped. And we hoped,” Klinsmann said. “And then they called: The coach doesn’t play me. Well, you have to make the coach play you.”
Sitting on the patio of a hotel restaurant the day before a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica in a World Cup qualifier this past week – which hugely increased his own job pressure – Klinsmann addressed the topic of player development during a 50-minute sit-down with American reporters. He looked to the future of forwards Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris, calling them potential “difference makers.’
“You see a lot of talent not having that inner drive. You see a lot of talents not going to the highest level possible, and you feel for them,” Klinsmann said. :”You feel for them because, well, you put in years of talking, guiding, explaining, videoing, and it hasn’t clicked. It hasn’t made that difference. And you can go through a palette of players that we’ve had coming through the last five years that unfortunately were not able to intellectually take that message or messages and make it into a huge career.”
A World Cup champion with West Germany in 1990, a European champion with Germany six years later and coach of the 2006 German team that reached the World Cup semifinals, Klinsmann was hired five years ago to help impart to Americans the routines of high-level soccer – what it takes to succeed at the highest level, the daily demands of being the best. He has an American wife and has lived in California since retiring as a player in 1998, giving him perspective on how U.S. soccer is unique.
Klinsmann said academics and the desire of parents to have American prospects attend college has hurt player development, frustrating both him and U.S. under-20 coach Tab Ramos. Klinsmann understands the motivation – his son Jonathan is a goalkeeper at the University of California at Berkeley. He is impatient with those who are distracted by their non-soccer lives.
“They’re not going to the next level because they want to go partying,” he said. “And Tab and I, we go crazy, and said ‘Why are you settling now?’ Well, because the parents are happy.”
When he asks something of a player, and gets the response, “Oh, let me call my agent,” Klinsmann said his reaction is then: “You know what? Conversation over.”
And with that, Klinsmann clapped his hands twice. But some players do break through.
Pulisic, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, and already among the Americans’ most technically skilled players, was noticed by Dortmund scouts three years ago in Florida. He signed as a 16-year-old, made his debut in January and scored twice in nine league games last season. He has two more Bundesliga goals this season, and he made his Champions League debut.
Lynden Gooch, a 20-year-old midfielder from Santa Cruz, California, got noticed by Sunderland when he was with the Santa Cruz Breakers Academy team, traveled to England during time off from school and joined Sunderland’s youth system at age 16. He made his first-team debut for the Black Cats in this year’s Premier League opener and has eight league appearances.
“I called David Moyes: What is it about the kid?” Klinsmann said of his phone call to the Sunderland manager. He remembered how Moyes told him: “‘Oh my gosh, Jurgen, this kid is hungry. I don’t even know how to keep him on the bench.”’
Cameron Carter-Vickers, the 18-year-old son of former NBA guard Howard Carter, grew up in Southend, England, and joined Tottenham’s academy system when he was 11. He made his first-team debut this season in the League Cup.
“He’s pushing. He’s getting there. He’s the future. He’s with the A team there all the time now,” Klinsmann said.
The best group of American youth players arguably was the team that finished fourth at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, a group that included Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Oguchi Onyewu and Bobby Convey.
Klinsmann thinks a coach like Moyes or Thomas Tuchel at Dortmund impacts the level these young men reach quickly.
“You cannot copy-paste it into their environment, because you need a coach that believes in young players,” Klinsmann said. “You need a coach that says, ‘We play him maybe 20 games in the second team but them I see that talent, then I bring him up.”’