Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German international star player and manager, will make his debut as the face of U.S. soccer tonight as he leads his new team out for an exhibition match against Mexico in Philadelphia. Less than two weeks into the job, the man they call "Klinsi" has been charged with driving an ambitious but uneven organization to a place he knows well, the gilded halls of elite global soccer.
In his first new conference as U.S. manager less than two weeks ago, Klinsmann was calm but pointed in laying out his challenge.
"I deeply believe that soccer in a certain way reflects the culture of a country," the transplanted Californian, 47, said.
"Having studied the U.S. culture over the last 13 years, it's quite a challenge. You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. Every coach obviously has his own ideas, and then you have the whole challenge of youth soccer in this country being based on a very different model than anywhere else in the world."
The question now -- and it begins now, because as important as it is to systematically develop good young players, failing to at least match past successes at the senior level could endanger the plan at its core -– centers on what Klinsmann perceives as the way forward.
His first team, selected for tonight's meeting with a high-flying young Mexico squad, indicates an emphasis on technical skill (see: C.F. Pachuca's Jose Torres, who played sparingly for the United States in the 2010 World Cup) and the manager's willingness to test-drive players his predecessor seemed hesitant to approach (fleet young defender Edgar Castillo, like Torres, plays professionally in Mexico).
But as any good Freudian would tell you, identifying the problem, however precisely, is hardly the same as fixing it. It'll be up to Klinsmann to develop a style of play that wins both games and the hearts of a growing fan base. The two do not always go hand-in-hand.
Tonight, though, is a celebration.
Klinsmann's long engagement with the U.S. Soccer Federation began in earnest almost five years ago, in the weeks after the legendary striker-turned-manager left his post with the German national team. He had just led the host Mannschaft to a surprising third-place finish in that summer's World Cup, and German fans and commentators -– many of whom had been calling for his ouster just weeks before the tournament -– were now clamoring for four more years.
But Klinsmann had made up his mind. He would move back to his adopted home of California and count his options.
His decision coincided roughly with the exit of then-U.S. coach Bruce Arena. Now managing David Beckham and Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy, Arena had led his fellow Americans in two consecutive World Cups, but to diminishing returns. It's rare in the international game for a head coach or manager to stick around through consecutive "cycles," and so Arena's contract was allowed to expire without much more than a burble.
The timing, many fans, bloggers and professional sportswriters agreed, was perfect. Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, had interest in Klinsmann and the feelings were reportedly mutual. In the end, though, the two sides could not make a deal. Bob Bradley, who was fired two weeks ago, took over the job, holding it through the 2010 World Cup and, ultimately, an embarrassing defeat at the feet of Mexico in June's Gold Cup final.
Klinsmann Era Begins With an Emphasis on Flair
This time around, the calls for change atop the U.S. soccer establishment were more pointed. By every metric, soccer in this country has never been more popular, and with that added attention came added pressure for Gulati to make a dramatic decision.
Klinsmann is a legend. He has starred as a player across Europe, winning a World Cup in 1990 and, with the help of a highly regarded staff, found success as a coach by instituting a new wave of attacking, exciting soccer with the German national team.
But that was mighty Germany, with its leagues-deep talent pool and glorious history. What about the United States?
Whatever the outcome in Philadelphia (9 ET, ESPN2), tonight is one for U.S. sports fans to remember. If only by association, this edition of the national soccer team is about to step out on to a new cut of turf.
The whole world will be watching.
The players* selected for tonight's inaugural "Klinsmannschaft," club home in parentheses:
Goalkeepers: Tim Howard (Everton), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (St. Etienne), Edgar Castillo (Club America), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Zach Loyd (Dallas), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (Red Bulls) Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew), Brek Shea (Dallas), Jose Torres (Pachuca) Forwards: Freddy Adu (Benfica), Juan Agudelo (Red Bulls), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Edson Buddle (Ingolstadt), Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)
*Zach Loyd replaces defender Timmy Chandler; Robbie Rogers has taken the injured Maurice Edu's place; and Clarence Goodson, also picked in the original group, has been injured and forced to withdraw.