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NYT profile delves into Klinsmann’s M.O., relationships with players

Jun 4, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT

Turkey v United States Getty Images

Jurgen Klinsmann is directly under the microscope of many American soccer supporters ahead of this month’s World Cup, and The New York Times’ Sam Borden has a long-form profile piece on the German-born coach that delves into his personality over the course of months of interaction.

Klinsmann, who has led the States to an almost-unparalleled run of play, is depicted as a man capable of making tough decisions while alternating between warm, guiding hand and cold, heartless decision maker.

The piece paints a picture of Klinsmann and his controversial decision to remove Landon Donovan from World Cup plans, but is really more about how that decision fits into the coach’s M.O. for American soccer and the USMNT.

And let’s get this out of the way: in December, Klinsmann said the US “cannot” win this World Cup. This doesn’t mean he’s not trying to, nor that he walks around the training ground telling the team it’s useless to try.

Here’s Klinsmann’s quotes regarding his decision to let Donovan’s sabbatical from soccer extend past when the American legend deemed himself ready to return to the national team:

“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann told me, waving his hands in the air. “Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

Klinsmann then turned to Donovan.

“He came back, and he was playing in M.L.S., and people say, ‘Oh, he’s playing well,’ but what does that really mean?” Klinsmann said. “This is where M.L.S. hurts him. He was playing at 70 percent, 80 percent, and he was still dominant. That doesn’t help anyone.”

Klinsmann shook his head. “I watched the games. What was I supposed to say? That he was good? He was not good. Not then. No way. So he had to wait.”

Donovan’s situation wasn’t entirely about his skill; To Klinsmann, it seems like Donovan was a symptom of the sick for American athletes. We’ve read about his background, observing his family’s business as a baker and serving as an apprentice. He was detail-driven, focused and intense.

He wants to win every practice. He wants to win every game. He wants accountability at every moment. He wants the sort of committed, hungry, unentitled attitude that is the very opposite of what so many American pro athletes regard as their birthright.

The must-read article lays out that Klinsmann loves America and its characteristics but expects, nay, demands much from his players. And he’s not just a strict, demanding egomania (Read his experience ‘scouting’ Jozy Altidore at Sunderland earlier this year).

You may not like his role or permissions as head coach — as the article points out, neither do Bruce Arena and Steve Sampson — but you might know him a bit better (and maybe even feel better about the World Cup… this one and the next.

  1. reformed2012 - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:12 PM

    Entitlement mentality is a proud product of the Obama generation

    • Nicholas Mendola - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:13 PM

      Not getting political, but an Obama generation can be no older than six, right?

      • lyleoross - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:43 PM

        Just yesterday, my six year old was telling me that he wasn’t getting enough ice cream and that Obama said he should get all he wanted. :)

    • lyleoross - Jun 4, 2014 at 4:30 PM


      America’s sense of entitlement came about long before Obama. It started with that “we’re exceptional” attitude we’ve been wearing around since WWII. Heck, if you’re exceptional, why do you have to work hard? You’re already exceptional. As for Obama, when he had the chutzpa to point out that other countries believe in their exceptionalism as much as we do (that is, maybe we aren’t any better than anyone else) he got his lunch handed to him by conservatives and the conservative media. Their comments – America is the best and number one.

      On the other hand, I run across a lot of kids who feel entitled, on a daily basis. Most of them are upper middle class, they’ve had every thing given to them, their parents give them lots of cool toys, and no matter how mean or rude they are, someone always says, “my child would never do that.” Shockingly enough, all of their parents are conservative, and voted for Mitt and McCain before him.

  2. talgrath - Jun 4, 2014 at 5:17 PM

    Klinsmann is absolutely right. The problem in American sports is that so many so-called fans are actual people who don’t pay attention to the sport, just to the headlines. Americans throw on whatever game is on and half watch the game, mostly using it as an excuse to drink, they don’t follow one sport enough to really know it in and out as a general rule; so what happens to the stars, the handful of guys they know, is major news. Whether it’s Kobe Bryant or Landon Donovan, stars in the US are often paid as much they are not for their performance, but because the coach/manager is too afraid to “fire” the star(s) that puts butts in seats; even if those stars are now old with knees that are falling apart (Kobe) or no longer motivated to play the game at the highest levels (Donovan). Klinsmann is trying to change soccer culture, first on the chopping block has to be the idea of owing players a spot on the roster or starting eleven.

    • tridecagon - Jun 4, 2014 at 6:20 PM

      You can’t play at 100 miles an hour forever. If Donovan is dominating and you know he’s only playing at 70 or 80 percent, how much better is he going to be when he’s on the world’s biggest stage?

      Donovan is a player who’s proven time and again that he’s at his finest when the spotlight is the brightest. You don’t cut a guy like that for dogging it in training… unless you’re just trying to prove a point and you’re willing to sacrifice immediate results to do it.

      • schmutzdeck - Jun 4, 2014 at 7:25 PM


        “If Donovan is dominating and you know he’s only playing at 70 or 80 percent, how much better is he going to be when he’s on the world’s biggest stage”

        Your logic is hard to follow. 80% Donovan is good enough to dominate MLS so 100% Donovan will dominate at the World Cup a much more vicious environment?

        Do you really think players just turn that stuff off and on like a radio? Why didn’t Donovan turn it on back in 2006 when he disappeared in the World Cup?. Why did he not turn it on against Ghana in 2010? An he was a lot younger and faster then.

        News flash, its 2014 and Donovan is years removed from being dominant at the World Cup level.

      • midtec2005 - Jun 5, 2014 at 9:10 AM

        His point isn’t valid, that’s why the logic is hard to follow. Reading comprehension should be valued a little more highly.

        Klinnsman said Donovan was only 70 or 80% immediately after his return from his sabbatical. Which, if you watched him play, was absolutely right. I actually disagree with Klinnsman that Donovan was dominating at this point in time, he wasn’t.

        However, I think the article also makes it pretty clear that Donovans omission was about sending a message. Because there is no universe where he isn’t still one of our best players. Past his prime? Yes. But by all accounts he was training very well at camp… not 70 or 80%. His national team record AFTER the sabbatical is a testament to this. The fact is that Klinnsman point is well taken… for Kobe Bryant, but not for Landon Donovan.

      • talgrath - Jun 5, 2014 at 3:35 PM

        I think one of the most telling quotes from Donovan about his performance came from the ESPN documentary they’ve been running about the lead up to the World Cup. Donovan said in an interview during the documentary “Sometimes it’s a bit difficult for me. I can’t train 12 straight days in a row and have 12 straight great days,”; does that sound like someone who is in good shape, who is motivated and consistent to you? Does that sound like a man who is going to step up in the spotlight?

  3. braxtonrob - Jun 4, 2014 at 7:53 PM

    I’ll tell you how I “feel” about the World Cup after it’s over.

    Also, there is no way you (or anyone else, including JK) can spin cutting LD from the roster into a positive.
    No US fans were asking for a slot to be reserved. And, LD’s legs aren’t broken. We have one legend in the mix and all anyone expected was a roster spot, not a starting spot.

    Every US fan is (errr … was) willing to give JK a clean slate, for the NEXT World Cup.
    He made a mistake, it’s going to show bigger and bigger as time progresses, we’re not going to the semi-finals based on his genius-coaching, and ultimately he WILL have to apologize for the omission. Period.

    • mknow406a - Jun 4, 2014 at 9:39 PM

      I had no idea that the manager’s top responsibility was to hand roster spots to the fans’ “choice” instead assembling what they felt was the best roster. This isn’t American Soccer Idol…

    • guerojose - Jun 4, 2014 at 10:29 PM

      If you actually watched Donovan play at all post-sabbatical, and still believe that he “deserved” a roster spot over quicker, younger, hungrier players, then I’d say you’re the one doing the spinning.

  4. ws0001 - Jun 4, 2014 at 8:31 PM

    I don’t ask for perfect consistency. None of us are that in our words, actions, or ideologies. JK can be critical of Bryant’s contract for rewarding the past or for the outcry over Donovan, but others can be critical for him rewarding a few players with World Cup not for what they are but what he thinks they could be. He can value intensity, detail, and focus, but he obviously forgave John Anthony Brooks when he was forced out of action with his club after getting a back tattoo in season. He has been willing to stick with Altidore through a bad season. He stood by Bradley and Dempsey when they signed on to play in MLS, which he trashed when assessing Donovan. It was a nice article, and JK may very well elevate US Soccer to a higher level by 2018, but there is no Klinsmann Doctrine. It is no different from when a team tabs Jose Mourinho, Phil Jackson, or Tony LaRussa. They have their guys, their whipping boys, and their inconsistencies. All the flaws are forgiven when you win. Was JK perfectly objective with Donovan? No more so than Mourinho was with Juan Mata or Tony LaRussa was with JD Drew or Scott Rolen. It does not mean he will be incapable of coming away with a good outcome. He has the contract that gives him the time to see the plan through. Unless you are Landon Donovan or the whipping boy of the future, enjoy the ride. It should be entertaining whether it works or not.

  5. gwhempel - Jun 4, 2014 at 8:58 PM

    Really liked the comment about entitlement in American professional sports. The worst offender is definitely baseball. What sense does it make to pay a 30-32 year old player $200+ million over 10 years when they’re ALREADY past their athletic prime. I don’t think Kobe was the best example, because I think he can still play when he’s healthy.

    Also disagree with what Arena said. Using strictly American coaches and MLS players may be the answer someday. But for now, let’s give something different a shot. If a Taiwanese baseball team has the choice between a solid manager from Taiwan and an enthusiastic and willing Joe Torre, why wouldn’t they pick Joe? It’s no knock on the Taiwanese coach, but the wealth of knowledge (and specifically different style of knowledge) could greatly benefit that team’s players.

    Good read. I’m glad we have Jurgen.

    • mknow406a - Jun 4, 2014 at 11:31 PM

      I believe the term is “professional jealousy.” Arena may be a big name in US soccer, but he’s no “special one” internationally. I don’t recall his name ever being thrown around for the Man U job… Why limit the overall development of our national program to people already inside the organization? The only reason I can think of is because your resume can’t compete against a larger, global, talent pool…

  6. guerojose - Jun 4, 2014 at 10:10 PM

    Wow, those quotes from Bruce Arena are classic. As if we needed any more reason to thank the gods that he’s not running things. He’s just a bitter, classless tool that can’t stand the prospect of Klinsmann’s success. And who apparently believes that you just rank the players by “best”, and take the top 23, regardless of their position or any other factors.

  7. guerojose - Jun 4, 2014 at 10:50 PM

    “part of what we’re trying to do is excite people… in a way that, frankly, we haven’t had anyone, ever, do before.” (*cough* – Bruce Arena)

    “Recruiting players is not something most national-team managers become intimately involved with”. (*cough* Bruce Arena)

    • midtec2005 - Jun 5, 2014 at 9:15 AM

      The point about recruiting players is very interesting.

      I remember reading an article about how Klinnsman came to the U.S. to study how successful programs here operate. One of them was the Pete Carrol-led USC football program. Klinnsmans current recruiting style sounds EXACTLY like a college football coach. I don’t think this is any coincidence.

  8. markburst - Jun 5, 2014 at 1:43 PM

    The last article I read about Donovan and his exclusion from the WC squad, Donovan stated that he thought he was playing and training to get into the starting 11, not just make the team… Therein lies his problem. He should have been fighting for his soccer life… he wasn’t. Now he is motivated and the Galaxy benefit, but is a little too little and a little too late to get on the plane to Brazil. JK is a little wrong about Kobe. At his age, he is still one of the best players on the planet so the $50M is for his future services.

  9. ws0001 - Jun 5, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    If JK wins, US Soccer will have its Jose Mourinho, Tony LaRussa, or Phil Jackson. He is teeming with inconsistencies, but never lacking for self-confidence when it comes to his sport and how he wants it played. He can bemoan Bryant being paid for past performances and compare it to Donovan, but he rewarded Julian Green for nothing more than the possibility of future performances after this coming World Cup. He was willing to forgive John Anthony Brooks after he missed time with his club following him getting a back tattoo. So much for valuing focus. He wanted to work with Altidore through his struggles at Sunderland, so much for accountability at every moment. While he slammed Donovan’s performances in MLS, he stood by Bradley and Dempsey as they took the money to return to that same league. He is going to have his guys, his whipping boys, and ultimately his way. Was he entirely objective in assessing Donovan? I do not think any more so than Mourinho was with Juan Mata or LaRussa was with JD Drew or Scott Rolen. Heck, Phil Jackson wrote about having a whipping boy to bring his team together. It is part of what a team signs up for with this type of coach, and unfortunately for those who fall on JK’s bad side there is no other team to go to in international soccer. If he wins, all will be forgiven. If he doesn’t win, and he has through the 2018 World Cup to leave his mark, he can go down with Charlie Weis’s “decided schematic advantage.” None of this is a reflection on American society. politics, or even American sports in the greater sense. This is about USA Soccer handing over the reigns to Jurgen. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but the reign is about things being done his way and the players trying to figure out what that means at that moment.

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