CHRIS BALLARD May 16, 2018
It’s a warm May afternoon one month before the World Cup and Jurgen Klinsmann—German soccer legend, former U.S. men’s national team coach and a man who tends to elicit strong feelings in the American soccer community—is driving his black Porsche SUV through Newport Beach, Calif. He expounds on the globalization of the game and, in particular, the problematic brevity of the MLS season when, abruptly, music fills the car.
The sound emanates from a cupholder, where Klinsmann’s iPhone rests in a scuffed case. It’s a toss-up which is more surprising: that Klinsmann uses a ringtone, or that his ringtone is Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Then again, perhaps the refrain is a reminder as much as anything.
At 53, Klinsmann remains enthusiastic, fit, tan and blond, a rogue tuft of hair stubbornly rising from the top of his head as if pulled by an invisible cloud of static electricity. He lives in a house nearby where he can watch dolphins surfing the blue swells of the Pacific, and he embraces much of the West Coast lifestyle: growth mindset, relentless optimism, organic food. And yet, not all of it sticks. He tried surfing but found himself “so frustrated” as he floated out there, “for hooours, you know, and it just wasn’t for me.” Though a vocal proponent of yoga as coach of the German and U.S. teams, he can’t abide it himself. “I absolutely believe in the benefits, but I don’t have the patience for it,” he says, then giggles. (Surprise No. 2: Klinsmann is a giggler.) “I don’t know about you, but when I hear ‘inhale ... exhale,’ I go through the roof!”
Klinsmann remains, in part, a baker’s son from the small town of Gingen an der Fils, Germany, raised by a father who woke at 3 a.m to prepare the day’s dough. This is the boy who, at 8, recorded in a logbook every goal he scored; who as a pro was renowned for his endurance and work ethic. The man who learned Italian, French and Spanish and, in his 40s, logged hundreds of hours training to acquire a commercial helicopter pilot’s license. (FLYHELI, reads the Porsche’s plates.) As U.S. coach he gave players a strict schedule and instituted at-times unpopular nutrition and fitness dictates; now he eats largely gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free—“ketchup is full of sugar,” he notes during lunch—while working out daily and playing in regular 7 a.m. pickup soccer games. Sitting still, breathing deeply and not worrying about a thing, these do not always come naturally.
But he’s trying! In many respects, Klinsmann is now as American as he is German. He and his wife, Debbie, a native of Orange County, have lived in the U.S. for 20 years and don’t intend to leave. Long a green card holder, Jurgen finally got his citizenship after Donald Trump was elected president because, well, wouldn’t you? His son, Jonathan, grew up here, went to Cal and started in goal for the U.S. U-20 team when it won the CONCACAF Championship last year, earning the tournament’s Golden Glove award. (Jonathan, 21, is a dual-national; he plays for Hertha BSC in the Bundesliga and could factor in the U.S. team’s future.)
Jurgen’s daughter, Laila, is a talented high school equestrian. His friends and his life are in the U.S., a country he adores. He loves that you can be whoever you want here, and that he can get a great Italian espresso, served to him by Italians, at the local café, and that every day he meets fascinating new people, all with big dreams and something to teach him. And he loves how you can reinvent yourself, because this is the land of opportunity, and what matters is “today and tomorrow,” not the past. At least most of the time.
Which brings us to the turn of events that likely brought you to this story. Because in 2016, after 5 1/2 years at the helm of the U.S. team, and with nearly two years and $6 million remaining on his contract, he oversaw consecutive losses in World Cup qualifying (to Mexico and Costa Rica) and was fired. And because after his departure the U.S. first made a stirring run under new/old coach Bruce Arena and then, to the horror of many, lost 2–1 last October to Trinidad and Tobago, the 99th-ranked team in the world, when even a tie would have sent them to Russia. This in turn triggered the resignation of Arena, the departure of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and a sport-wide reckoning.
Naturally, Klinsmann has a range of thoughts on all of this. But during his playing years, first in Germany (at clubs like Stuttgart FC and Bayern Munich) and then Italy (Inter Milan) and England (Tottenham), he learned that every country’s media is different. The Brits look to provoke. The Italians occasionally imagine conversations, though not maliciously. The Germans veer from confrontational to nationalistic. And in the U.S.? Long ago, Klinsmann says, he realized that “the American media mainly cares about quotes.” So let’s cover the most pertinent ones right here.
Yes, Klinsmann believes the U.S. would be in the upcoming World Cup if he hadn’t been fired: “The team was on track. We would have swallowed the early defeats and moved on and get the job done.”
No, he doesn’t think he should have been ousted: “You build a new skeleton between World Cups and we hadn’t built the skeleton yet. When we lost two games, we were still building the skeleton. Sorry we lost two games! Then [the Federation] became emotional. ... But they made their decision, so no problem.”
Yes, he believes the USMNT has the potential to advance as far as the semifinals as soon as 2022, provided everything breaks right: “You need a spine of seven to eight other players on the level of [midfielder Christian] Pulisic playing at high-caliber clubs in Europe.” This, he notes, “will not be easy.”
Finally, regarding what he could have done differently: “If I want to get the most out of [the national team], to help it make future steps, if I want them to go to another level as a program and a federation?” He pauses. “Then I would do everything the same way.” At the same time, he understands how these things work. As he says: “Always later you know it better.”
When the U.S. hired Klinsmann, in the summer of 2011, he seemed the ideal candidate. Having transformed Germany’s style and finishing third at the ’06 World Cup, he possessed coaching bona fides. As a predatory striker who earned 108 caps, he is among the game’s living legends. And as a California resident, Klinsmann was familiar with the culture. His charisma and confidence didn’t hurt. “I was in awe of him,” says Tab Ramos, who served as one of Klinsmann’s assistants and is now the U.S. U-20 coach. “There was no scenario he was afraid of or surprised by.”
Things began well. A 2012 away win over Italy in a friendly. A ’13 Gold Cup title and a first-place finish in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. That December, Gulati signed Klinsmann to a four-year extension reportedly worth $10 million, adding technical director to his title, meaning that he oversaw both coaching and development.
As he had in Germany, Klinsmann made a series of bold moves, none more controversial than cutting Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster, an act for which some have never forgiven him. He also focused on empowering young players and recruiting dual-nationals like Fabian Johnson and Aron Jóhannsson while bringing a decidedly un-American candor to the job. “We cannot win this World Cup,” he told The New York Times before Brazil, “because we are not at that level yet.”
That summer Klinsmann led the U.S. out of the Group of Death before falling to Belgium in the round of 16. U.S. fans were ecstatic. In the ensuing two years, however, the coach’s standing waned, capped by those qualifier losses. In Klinsmann’s mind, the defeats were just part of the process, inevitable dips en route to Russia. The Federation disagreed and on Nov. 21, 2016, in L.A., Gulati fired him. Klinsmann says he hadn’t intended to stay after the end of the second cycle, but he allows that the firing “maybe hurt in a certain way.”
He looked into the why and how of his firing. “They have their reasons, they are your bosses so you have to accept that,” he says. “It was an amazing ride. Were there some bumps in the process? Absolutely, some losses. Absolutely. But it didn’t take me long [to move on] because I knew why certain things happened. ... You analyze it, discuss it and move on. One door closes and three more open.” Still, in hindsight: “If I’d have known that they’d make the decision to cut [me] short, because [I] lost two games, probably I would have stepped out after 2014.” (Gulati’s take: “Overall, I think his time was quite positive. In the end, wins and losses are what anyone is measured by. The second cycle we fell short and that was disappointing.”)
Klinsmann says some national teams reached out but that he “turned down opportunities where it would have just been getting out of the group stage, because if I [coach another national team], I want to put my stamp on it.” (In doing so he left U.S. Soccer on the hook for the remainder of his contract.) Instead he prioritized “the kind of stuff you can’t do when you have a job.” Going to Laila’s horse shows. Watching Jonathan play in Germany, Costa Rica and Korea. Flying friends in his helicopter. He spoke at coaching conferences and attended Galaxy games and walked the border bridge to see Club Tijuana. Having always wanted to watch Boca Juniors play River Plate in Buenos Aires, he embarked on a five-day “guys trip” with Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid and RJ Brandes, a real estate developer with whom Klinsmann has become close. “We had the blast of our lives!” says Klinsmann.
In the fall of 2017 he agreed to a buyout with U.S. Soccer. Then, on the afternoon of Oct. 10. Klinsmann invited Brandes over to watch the Argentina-Ecuador qualifier. Debbie came in and announced that the U.S. was down 1–0 to Trinidad. Klinsmann was surprised but assumed the U.S. would turn it around. And, well, you know what happened next. “Like everyone,” says Klinsmann, “I thought it was a shock and a disaster.”
Scapegoats are easy to find: the culture, the federation, the coaching, the players, the business-first approach of MLS. Arena rushed out a book with his side of the story. (He says Gulati planned to fire Klinsmann before 2016 qualifying ramped up.) As fans clamored for new blood and technical expertise, U.S. Soccer in February elected as its new president ... Carlos Cordeiro, a 61-year-old VP of the federation who has spent much of his life on Wall Street. It wasn’t exactly being the change you want to see.
Big picture, Klinsmann says he was saddened by the U.S.’s failure; his son is part of the national team program, after all. But he also says it’s not in his nature to look back. He’d rather focus on the future of the game.
“Just look at it!” Klinsmann says, sweeping his hand wide. It’s midmorning and we’re on a golf cart, looking out at SilverLakes, a new soccer-centric facility 50 miles east of L.A. that Klinsmann co-founded with Brandes and helped design. Two dozen green fields—most grass, some high-tech turf—splay out before us, bracketed between Mount Baldy and the I-15 corridor. Sprinklers chug away in the morning heat.
Klinsmann comes out here once or twice a week, carrying a small leather notebook and inquiring about logistics: How did the tournament go this weekend? Should we build a training facility? From the start he and Brandes resisted entreaties for sporting diversity and the multipurpose homogeneity of all-in-one America—football fields and baseball diamonds—because they believe baseball is on the way out and so is football, what with concussions. Klinsmann envisions a model for the rest of the country, a community-oriented complex that hosts visiting college and pro teams, as it will in July. Meanwhile, an on-site restaurant serves vegan burgers and beer and good coffee. “This is what American soccer moms want,” Klinsmann explains. “Clean bathrooms and a place to eat while their kids play.”
The complex, while impressive, is a concession to what Klinsmann views as the reality of the game here. In most countries soccer is a working-class sport. Dirt pitch, two trash cans for goals. “Here it is upper-middle class,” Klinsmann says. “Your parents drive you to practice and pick you up.” More hobby than lifeblood.
And this, Klinsmann explains, is one of a handful of fundamental issues holding the U.S. back, at least at the international level. The most vexing is the scholarship model. “For 99.9% of the parents the goal is to get [their kid] a scholarship, and the U.S. is unique in the world for that, in a good way. But can that be an obstacle? For the higher end 0.1%, yes.” (Klinsmann believes this also helps explain the U.S. women’s dominance; in other countries few women had opportunities to play professionally while here a vast pool of talent was buoyed by the collegiate system.)
Once those players graduate, many head to MLS, with whom Klinsmann often clashed during his USMNT tenure. He sees inherent flaws in its structure: no promotion-relegation system (“so, no fear, which means safe”), a nine-month schedule (as opposed to 11 in Europe) and, in his opinion, low-level competition. Expecting the top Americans to compete in MLS never made sense to Klinsmann. “If a player has a chance to go to Europe, I say, 'Yes, go, because it’s three levels above.' I mean, Dirk Nowitzki plays in the U.S. for a reason. He’s not playing in the German Bundesliga!”
Underlying all this is the need for an identity. “Each country has their four or five bullet points that you can characterize them by,” he says. Germany: “attacking, proactive, impatient.” Brazil: “always being fun.” Argentina: “arrogance.” “The Italians play a certain way, because that’s how they are.” And the U.S.? Well, no one quite knows.
But a path forward exists, he believes. Expand the MLS season and respect FIFA’s international dates. Lengthen the college season. Instill a competitive desperation—your spot on the national team is never safe. Empower young talent. (Klinsmann says that if he’d seen then-19-year-old Jordan Morris three months earlier, he’d have brought him to Brazil in 2014.) Monitor chemistry. (“Maybe a coach needs to cut out a bad apple, and it might be a big apple, you know,” he says, raising a hand above head level.) Do all this and “Generation Pulisic,” as he calls it, still has a chance. "You cannot put a deadline on it,” though, he says. “People think if you do this and then this, then we win the next World Cup? No, it doesn’t work that way, because the other countries are also advancing.” Still, he believes the game’s growth in the U.S. can’t be stopped now; he cites immigrant families, media coverage, “the flowers coming up” in the youth system and the success of the U-20 squad. Put it all together and it might just work.
That’s the best-case scenario, though. For now, the U.S. still lacks a coach. Potential candidates include Juan Carlos Osorio of Mexico, Roberto Martinez of Belgium, Jesse Marsch of the Red Bulls and Tab Ramos, the U-20 coach and Klinsmann’s protégé. Whoever gets the job, Klinsmann advises that, if that person is American, he needs to be “open-minded to what happens outside in the world.” And if foreign, that person should heed the overriding lesson of Klinsmann’s own career: “You cannot go into a cultural environment and change people. You need to adjust to them.” But most of all, he says, nothing will work unless the coach and federation “work hand in hand, and no one has different agendas.”
Like much Klinsmann says, that quote is purposefully phrased. Over the course of two meetings he is careful to go on and off the record. He has held enough jobs, and had enough bosses, to know there’s little upside to public griping: “In Germany we say, ‘Don’t spit in the soup you’re eating from.’”
But the frustration is clear, on various sides. Some in the U.S. soccer media are not fond of Klinsmann, and the feeling is mutual; he has stopped speaking to certain television and print reporters. While defender Geoff Cameron and German-born midfielder Jermaine Jones publicly supported Klinsmann’s approach after his departure, other USMNT players were conspicuously quiet, including captain Michael Bradley. (Approached for this story, Bradley declined to comment.)
To spend time around Klinsmann is to be confronted by contradictions. He is affable but judgmental, easygoing but averse to compromise. (“He knows exactly who he is and what he wants,” says Brandes.) For a global sports icon he is surprisingly down-to-earth and conscientious; he calls at 8:50 a.m. to say he will arrive for a meeting scheduled at 9 in “10 to 12 minutes”—or, as it’s commonly known, on time. He can be charming but also awkward and stubborn. He says things like, “My dad always said, ‘If I burn the bread I go back in the kitchen and I make another loaf and sell it again and I apologize to my clients”—and yet he’s reluctant to admit missteps or apologize. (Four times I ask about mistakes he made, but he evades the question each time.) Klinsmann’s critics often note these dualities. They believe he over-tinkered with lineups and failed at communicating but also acknowledge the value of his big-picture ideas and his skills as a motivator. To some, it seems as if he possesses the hardware but not the software.
Perhaps it’s all perspective. In discussing the American reaction to his tenure Klinsmann tends to note the gap in experience. He has played and coached all over the world, alongside and against some of the best ever. If you haven’t done this, then you can’t comprehend the game as he does; you cannot, technically speaking, understand his decisions. This makes sense on one level—he is perhaps the most qualified person in the world to comment on U.S. soccer—but can also be viewed as something of an epic copout.
For now Klinsmann says he’s ready to move on. He will provide BBC commentary on the upcoming World Cup; afterward, he believes a coaching job will open up. MLS, he insists, isn’t on his radar; he’s focused on a national team, though it would have to be “a top-eight team” this time, so he could “really go for it.” The sporadic schedule of a national gig would also allow him to stay in California through the end of Laila’s high school years. (Rumors last week placed him on the radar of Pachuca, in Mexico’s Liga MX. Asked about that, Klinsmann texts: “No truth!”)
In time a narrative will coalesce about Klinsmann’s role in the development of U.S. soccer, whether he was instrumental in pushing the program forward (as some believe, especially in the infrastructure he laid at the youth level, creating national teams for every age group) or just happened to be in the right place at the right time (as others believe). Either way, one thing is certain: By then he will have moved on, maybe more than once, as is his nature, chasing life’s opportunities and adventures. As he does, he will continue to follow the growth of the American game. Worrying about it, however, will be someone else’s problem.