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If Jurgen Klinsmann were American, he would be the king of soccer in this country. No Yank, past or present, comes near his quality as a striker for German national teams and at big clubs at home and in Italy, France and England. We would kill for players of Klinsmann's caliber.
Thing is, Klinsmann is American. And now he is, more or less, soccer's king around these parts.
The legendary forward whose modern (and largely American) take on fitness, nutrition, training and team psychology paved the path to Germany's surprise third-place showing at the 2006 World Cup (and then ruffled the brass at Bayern Munich) is looking to escort the U.S. national team to the next stage or two in its evolution, and his impact, it is hoped, could be game-changing.
Klinsmann took charge after Bob Bradley was dismissed as national team head coach in late July, and early signs are that he's still learning how deep is his pool of talent, what that pool is capable of and where real growth can occur over 2012 and beyond.
It's a tough assignment for any coach, but one in foreign space, in an unfamiliar culture, might find it impossible. That Klinsmann has been the target the past six years -- he was first approached about the job following the 2006 World Cup -- is product of his links to this land.
Klinsmann, 47, was born in Göppingen -- near Stuttgart in southwest Germany -- but his spiritual home is California. On his first visit here, during his playing days, he trekked down the coast in a VW bus. His wife and children are American, and he's called Orange County home since his playing career ended 13½ years ago, absorbing the culture and digging into every educational opportunity possible to prepare for what he calls the “after career.”
“It was very helpful to have good people here in the U.S. that guided me through that process,” Klinsmann said in September. “What kind of people? I worked for companies. I took classes at different colleges. I went up to Portland, where adidas [has its U.S. headquarters], and they gave me a lot of help. ...
“Step by step, you learn about many different aspects of sports, the business side of it and other sides of it, and that's when you start also to see things from the outside perspective. ... You start with your own thoughts and ideas, and here you have resources beyond what we have in Europe and South America, because you have the other big sports that are top-notch and are differently driven than soccer. You can learn from other sports.
“Every sport has something to offer, invaluable information for your own game. So I had to opportunity to go out there and spend the day with [former Lakers coach] Phil Jackson, spend the day with Pete Carroll [the former USC football coach now guiding the Seattle Seahawks], go to a seminar from Coach K [Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski].”
Klinsmann, naturally inquisitive and upbeat, blended these experiences with ideas drawn across a career on Europe's fields and -- after he succeeded his former striking partner Rudi Völler following a disastrous Euro 2004 -- sought to change an entrenched German mindset. His was a revolution: He revamped the bureaucracy surrounding the national team, placed allies in key positions, brought in a top-tier tactician (Joachim Löw, also his successor), greatly altered the training regimen, installed a freewheeling attacking style and served as chief motivator, giving his young, largely unfancied charges belief that they could succeed.
It worked wonders at the World Cup but was doomed from the start in the tradition-anchored Bundesliga, where his work with the national team had many detractors. He lasted just 10 months at Bayern, returned to California, worked as a consultant, turned down a second approach and, in July, finally accepted the position when promised the power required.
What impact will he have? We'll see. The U.S. begins qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in June, far too soon to complete a transitional phase that was well in motion before Klinsmann added a bunch of new wrinkles.
Our guess is this: It won't be about what the U.S. achieves in Brazil -- so much of that is down to the draw -- so much as what is the U.S. capable of accomplishing. And 2014 might be too soon for an answer.
Ultimately, he's leading another revolution, building upon Bradley's work -- and that of Bruce Arena before Bradley -- to build a national identity in the sport.
“It's not really important what my philosophy is,” Klinsmann said. “I think it's more important what the people's philosophy is. I think the national team should reflect at the end of the day the overall sense of people living in this country. We want to have a style of play down the road that the people really enjoy to watch, and especially then the players also enjoy to play. ...
“Hopefully, it's going to be something that the people enjoy it.”