Many will prepare for the World Cup by playing in MLS rather than Europe, which was not the preferred strategy for U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann.
Juergen Klinsmann is nothing if not flexible.
So when most of the players in the U.S. national team pool ignored his suggestion to play in Europe to prep for this summer’s World Cup, Klinsmann turned the slight into a compliment for Major League Soccer.
At least that’s how it sounded.
“It’s exciting,” Klinsmann said last week in an interview with the Associated Press in Brazil, where the national team is holding part of its winter training camp. “The players who are in Europe, many of them big players, are now back in MLS.
“MLS is getting better every year. We are working at full pace. Hopefully the hard work will pay off this summer.”
That, of course, was not the lesson he was preaching two months ago. In November, Klinsmann said it was mandatory for World Cup hopefuls to either play in Europe or attend the national team camp.
And there was no doubt which option he preferred.
“Our priority No. 1 for them is finding a team to get on loan for January-February into March,” he said then. “If a player has the opportunity to go on loan, you’ve got to go for it. You’re in real competition, you’re in a real competitive environment, you’ve got to have a point to prove and kick-start 2014 that way.”
So why the change? Well, probably because nobody listened.
The Galaxy’s Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez, likely starters in Brazil, announced early that they would be staying home for the winter. Four other MLS veterans — midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi, defender Matt Besler and goalkeeper Nick Rimando — played into December and needed a rest.
And most of the others who wound up in this month’s training camp had few, if any, European suitors interested in their services.
That left Seattle’s Clint Dempsey, who returned to MLS from the English Premier League in August, as the only player who took his coach’s words to heart, joining Fulham of the EPL on a two-month winter loan. But last week midfielder Michael Bradley canceled that out by going the other way, leaving Italy’s Roma to sign with Toronto FC for six years and a reported $36 million.
As a result, it’s possible more than half the players on the U.S. World Cup team this summer could be coming off MLS rosters. Only four active MLS players made the 2010 team.
And that has left Klinsmann hiding his disappointment while struggling to cast that shift in the best possible light.
“It is a very kind of tricky situation,” Klinsmann said in an Internet interview. “You want them to play in the best leagues in the world and the best clubs in the world. And obviously MLS is not there yet.”
Klinsmann grew up in the hyper-competitive European leagues, competing in Germany, France, England and Italy while winning a World Cup. And he believes exposure to that environment will help his U.S. players take their game to another level too.
He’s not the only one that believes that.
“Oh my God, I’d loan them all out. Every single one of them,” says Eric Wynalda, a three-time World Cup veteran who was recently named to U.S. Soccer’s all-time First XI.
Wynalda worries national team candidates, fearing injury, will grow conservative in MLS because the competitive demands aren’t as high. That can make it difficult to flip the switch when the World Cup begins.
“It’s not the level of play. It’s the mentality of the player,” he says. “I’m not saying playing against Seattle isn’t a competitive game. Or playing against Toronto isn’t a competitive game. What I’m saying is that you cannot help, as a human being, to think about the severity of the situation. ‘If I get hurt, I’m out.’
“I lived it and I’ve watched it. And when they don’t have the choice and they have to compete on a weekly basis and they’re trying every day, they’re not sitting there in their back of their mind thinking, ‘Oh my God if I get hurt I don’t make the team.’ You don’t have that luxury when you’re in Europe. You just play the game at a high level.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber isn’t buying that. The league is changing, he says, which is why players such as Bradley and Dempsey are coming back and while others such as Donovan and Gonzalez don’t want to leave.
And while Klinsmann might not be totally in agreement, just give him time, Garber says.
“The league is maturing and it’s becoming a league of choice for top American players,” he argues. “Years ago we probably hadn’t entirely earned the right to be able to have the best American players here in our league.
“I think [Klinsmann] is turning around a bit and seeing that MLS cannot just be a part of the process but actually can help the national team be better. It’s undoubtedly a viable way for them to train for the World Cup.”