Soccer is on the brink of being huge in America. That’s what they told us as we formed circles for passing drills on the Liberty Bell Youth Organization fields in Northeast Philadelphia, and as we watched the Atoms in a nearly empty Veterans Stadium.
That was 1973.
Soccer never quite got huge in the way everyone predicted, as a threat to the popularity of the four major-league sports. It is huge nonetheless. Millions of kids play. Technology allows fans to follow the really elite game as it is played in Europe and South America and Mexico. Major League Soccer has, at the very least, found a comfortable niche.
But U.S. pre-eminence on the international level — that remains a too-long lead pass bouncing hopelessly ahead of desperately chasing players. It is Jurgen Klinsmann’s turn to chase that ball. Like his predecessors, most recently Bob Bradley, Klinsmann took the job talking about developing young talent and getting more American kids to focus on soccer instead of basketball or baseball.
Klinsmann will make his debut tonight at Lincoln Financial Field. The U.S. men’s national team will face Mexico, the very team that broke its spirit and ended Bradley’s tenure in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in late June. The setup almost couldn’t be better.
“Jumping in a game like this right away, it’s not an easy task,” Klinsmann said before a workout Tuesday at the Eagles’ NovaCare Complex. “It’s exciting playing Mexico just a couple weeks later, after the Gold Cup final. But it’s especially exciting because you have an opponent that improved tremendously over the last couple years. They belong to the top 10 in the world.
“The U.S., right now, does not belong in that region. We know that. It’s a big goal.”
It is the only goal. Listening to new U.S. national team coaches is a little like listening to the various head football coaches Temple would hire through the 1980s and ’90s. They all knew the peculiar challenge of the job they were taking. They all knew how the last guy had failed. They were all doomed.
And then Al Golden came along and made things work. The USMNT is hoping Klinsmann is that guy.
Michael Bradley brings a unique perspective to this camp. He watched his father, Bob, try for five years to elevate the USMNT to that elite level. He came close. The United States won its group in last year’s World Cup, then fizzled against Ghana in the first knockout round. The collapse against Mexico, in which the United States blew a 2-0 lead, was the end of the line.
“He’s a strong guy,” Michael Bradley said of his father. “Nothing to worry about there. In soccer, in life, you learn to deal with things that are difficult, that don’t go your way. Nobody would have expected that he was going to be here for 20 years. You know that going in. My dad, more than anybody, realized that.”
With the Olympics a year away, and qualifying for the 2014 World Cup coming soon, Klinsmann’s task is to build a contending team with parts of the existing core and an infusion of young talent. The squad he selected for this short-notice friendly reflects that: Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra and Tim Howard are here. So are Freddy Adu, Brek Shea, and Edgar Castillo.
Klinsmann has been there as a striker on the World Cup- winning German team in 1990. He has coached at the highest levels. His 13 years living in the United States have given him at least a feel for the systemic reasons that U.S. soccer isn’t on the same level as smaller nations with richer traditions.
But the United States has a large and growing Hispanic population that does revere futbol the way it is celebrated and enjoyed elsewhere. On Monday, Klinsmann had his Latino players working together in a scrimmage against the rest of the team.
“That was certainly not a coincidence,” Klinsmann said. “When I put teams together in a training session, there’s always a reason. It’s really important for us to see how they link up.”