Jurgen Klinsmann wants to see Americans at the biggest clubs in Europe; the Americans want to stay home. In this game of transfer chicken, who blinks first?
I knew Matt Besler wasn’t going to Europe when I saw this Tweet on Friday.
The smile, the shorts, the swing, the summer sun. The 27 year-old standout American defender looked content, relaxed, a man with a satisfied mind. He did not look like a guy who was weighing offers from Sunderland and Fulham and ready to replace Kansas City barbecue with overcooked vegetables and steak and kidney pies in rainy England.
My premonition was confirmed this past weekend when Sporting KC announced that they had resigned Besler and fellow American Graham Zusi to long-term Designated Player contracts. For many, this wasn’t supposed to happen. After the World Cup, most of the MLS-based Americans were supposed to have launched the biggest summer invasion of Europe since D-Day, heeding Klinsmann’s oft-repeated call to leave the comfortable climes of MLS and challenge themselves in the cut-throat competition of European football. Many predicted that Besler would anchor a Bundesliga backline, Yedlin would terrorize the flanks of Serie A, and Zusi would whip inch-perfect crosses onto the heads of Premier League target forwards.
— LiveKC (@livekc) July 18, 2014
Instead Besler and Zusi both spoke Klinsmann kryptonite after signing their new contracts, describing their tremendous comfort with the coaching staff and the organization in Kansas City. In Los Angeles, Omar Gonzalez’s most-talked about performance since the World Cup has been on YouTube, and rumors about Yedlin’s future arrive so quickly it’s impossible to separate fact from fiction. Somewhere in southern California, Jurgen Klinsmann must be stewing.
Even if Yedlin does move to Europe, the fact that so many Americans are choosing to stay in MLS poses an existential threat to Klinsmann’s efforts to remake American football. Since taking over as U.S. coach in 2011, Klinsmann has co-opted the language of the tech industry, speaking more like an apostle of Steve Jobs and disruptive innovation than a soccer coach. At South by Southwest last year, Klinsmann explained his vision for American players to Men In Blazers’ Roger Bennett, “Don’t settle with where you are,” he said. “This is the kind of a constant talk we have with our players: never settle, not even for one second, because then you stop and you go downhill and the next one passes you right away.” While necessity may be the mother of invention, for Klinsmann, change is the engine of growth.
But since taking over as coach, Klinsmann’s star players—Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey—have returned home to lucrative MLS contracts, and now with Zusi and Besler staying in KC, many of the best American players have bluntly rejected Klinsmann’s Euro-centric worldview. Though it must be said that some in MLS don’t agree with any notions of American football’s inferiority (Sporting KC President Robb Heinemann told reporters that any notion that player development in Kansas being inferior to European player development is “complete BS”), Klinsmann still remains convinced of the supremacy of European soccer. So why are American players not listening to their coach’s advice?
One reason might be that it’s just a good time to be an American footballer playing in the United States. Since returning from Brazil, they’ve been feted on morning talk shows in New York, won an ESPY award in Los Angeles, received oversized keys to American cities, and clubbed VIP in Miami.
More importantly, the Designated Player rule—initially designed to lure high-priced foreign stars to MLS—is increasingly being used to bring high-profile Americans back to MLS and prevent them them from going abroad. In this crazy, post-Brazil world of popular U.S. football, Jozy Alitdore might actually be a bigger attendance draw for an MLS club than Frank Lampard. Including Zusi and Besler, there are now nine American DPs in MLS out of the 39 DPs currently playing, and that number seems certain to rise as several U.S players have openly talked about wanting to play in MLS.
Coupled with the cautionary tales of Brek Shea, Oguchi Onyewu, Maurice Edu, and the countless other American players who have stumbled in Europe and dropped off Klinsmann’s radar, American players seem increasingly content to play regular first-team domestic football rather than accept Klinsmann’s challenge to move abroad. Why suffer at a bleak, mid-table English club scratching out minutes when you could star in MLS? Given the potential for failure, it’s not surprising many American players are making risk-averse career moves.
It’s easy to imagine a future where the relationship between MLS and U.S. Soccer mirrors that of Liga MX and the Mexican Football Federation. While the premier Mexican players star for big clubs in Europe, the bulk of the team competes domestically, enticed to stay home with large contracts and the comfort of home. As MLS angles to sign more American stars—anyone want to sign Jermaine Jones?—it’s quite possible that a similar situation will develop in the United States.
With the Gold Cup in 2015, Copa America in 2016, and World Cup qualifying starting sooner than you think, the way Klinsmann responds to his increasingly domestic-based team will dictate what U.S. Soccer looks like at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Will Klinsmann reward the players who—in his eyes—left their “comfort zones” to play in Europe? On top of the German-Americans in Europe (John Brooks, Julian Green, Fabian Johnson, and Timmy Chandler), there’s no shortage of young American talent at some pretty major European clubs, including Junior Flores and Joe Gyau at Borussia Dortmund, Marc Pelosi at Liverpool, Julian Green at Bayern Munich, Emerson Hyndman at Fulham, and potential American star Gedion Zelalem at Arsenal. If they begin to earn first team minutes, will Klinsmann hand the young kids the keys to U.S. Soccer and send the MLS veterans to join Landon Donovan in international purgatory?
At SXSW, Klinsmann told the crowd that there’s a “generation of [American players] who settle sometimes too early.” While Besler, Zusi and the rest of the Americans are comfortable playing in MLS now, if they end up missing the flight to Russia will they still feel so at home in 2018?