As the final games of FIFA World Cup group play come to pass, it has been tempting to re-visit the initial squeals over U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s selection of his 23-man squad. Since the release of the roster, Klinsmann has had less than favorable coverage from the U.S. media. From his statement about Kobe Bryant, to his public admission that the U.S. cannot win the World Cup this year, Klinsmann also said that he had a unique preference for the German-American players as roster candidates for Brazil.
When soccer-related headlines on May 22, 2014 indicated that Landon Donovan would not be making the trip to the World Cup in Brazil, many took the news with shock and disbelief. Even those who did agree with Klinsmann’s decision to cut Donovan did not necessarily find the so-called “replacements” adequate. The bulk of the criticism fell upon the inclusion of German-American Julian Green.
Among the critiques of Green was his youth and thereby his alleged inexperience. Klinsmann nonetheless justified his choice of the Bayern Munich player in particular, and other German-American players in general, by comparing the professional soccer development programs of the two nations.
In an interview with Julie Foudy, Klinsmann praised the professional development programs that are present in Germany. Bundesliga teams have extensive youth development programs, and many of the football clubs have partnership programs in state. Youth are recruited at young ages and developed according to the philosophy of the overseeing clubs.
According to Klinsmann, there is no American equivalent. The club programs in America are filters for players who are interested in playing at the collegiate level. Until 2007, the Olympic Development Program (ODP) was the most advanced level a player could achieve. For Klinsmann, opting for a Division I school is a major setback in comparison to the youth development programs that the leading football nations around the world adhere to. That is why Klinsmann had no shame in owning up to his preference for recruiting German dual-nationals to play for the U.S. His justification for the preference was purely strategic.
The year 2007 saw the launch of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA). The USSDA oversees the development of youth national players and is administered by the United States Soccer Federation. It consists of MLS youth teams, however any club is allowed to apply to the Development Academy to become an “Academy Club.” The USSDA is relatively new, and in effect, behind schedule in the footballing world, however it is a well-intentioned modeling of the European youth programs.
For Klinsmann, it comes down to the way the sport is set up in America. Club soccer can be extremely costly, and with professional soccer largely outshone by the NFL, MLB and NBA, there is less incentive for youth development programs that are endorsed by MLS teams. The organization and popularity of the sport in America is nowhere near its European and South American counterparts. As a result, the quality of play is not where it ought to be, at least by comparison.
As the U.S. faced Germany in the final game of World Cup group play, the five German dual-nationals playing for the U.S. went up against their own countrymen. Klinsmann’s preference for dual-nationals is a calculated one that has at its core an intimate understanding of youth development programs around the globe. As the knockout stage begins, Klinsmann has shown his capacity to lead the U.S. out of a group that no one thought possible to breach. He tackled the Group of Death, and it looks like Klinsmann’s justification for and familiarity with German-American players has paid off.
Commentary by Courtney Anderson
Read more Guardian Liberty Voice Coverage on the FIFA World Cup Round of 16