The Destruction of Small Ideas

Jürgen Klinsmann is the new coach of the United States, and he has wasted no time in getting right down to the pressing task of being handsome and having twinkly eyes.

At his inaugural press conference, Klinsmann did not gloss over the issue that the U.S. has a long way to go before it can match Mexico. The German has less than a week to get his players as sexily-tanned and luxurious-haired as el Tri before the two teams face off in a friendly. With five short-cropped, pasty-complexioned years of Bob Bradley still fresh in the mind, it’s not an enviable task.

It could be argued that, handsomeness aside, the U.S. Soccer Federation has not upgraded on anything other than popularity. That if Bob Bradley is Voldemort (say what you like about the Dark Lord, he got things done) then Klinsmann could be Gilderoy Lockhart, all swagger and bluff and made-up stories about werewolves.

But that would be wrong, and even the most sour-faced of Bradley apologists (the author of this post, for instance) would have to admit that Klinsmann adds something different.

In so many ways, Klinsmann could not be more different from his predecessor. Bradley, for example, has eyes utterly devoid of twinkle. They are twin shards of unforgiving flint, the most terrifying eyes in world football. He looks like a man who was once forced to eat a whole lemon and is constantly haunted by the memory.

But here’s the real difference. Bradley is a tactician (albeit a flawed one). Klinsmann isn’t, and he’ll be assessed by entirely different criteria. Bradley was judged on what happened on the pitch – the cautiousness, reactivity and adequacy. His tenure was defined by tactics, and tactical mistakes were ultimately his downfall.

It is immediately obvious that Klinsmann will not be measured by the same standards. The Klinsmann era is already one built on encouraging-sounding nouns. Development. Programme. Environment. The goalposts have shifted, and things like infrastructure and dual-nationality youngsters have suddenly become more important than whether Jozy Altidore starts the next game.

The story of the Bradley years was one of qualified achievement, of doing just about enough. Bradley always set out a team designed primarily to counter the opposition’s strengths.

That approach took the U.S. to four finals out of five tournaments, kept the wheels of progress well-oiled, but it never endowed the team with a particular footballing identity. Klinsmann, meanwhile, has already been making noises about dictating the play, about establishing an American style of football and imposing it on the opposition.

Perhaps that’s what the U.S. lacks, or perhaps it’s exactly what it doesn't need. There is evidence for both – for every Chile fan who could tell you what Marcelo Bielsa did for their footballing identity, there is an England fan to explain how clinging to a traditional style has held their national team back.

Klinsmann may not be as good a tactician as Bradley – indeed, he definitely isn’t – but it is difficult not to acknowledge that Project Klinsi is something the U.S. needs, for better or worse. Whatever level of involvement Klinsmann had to his native country’s on-field success in 2006, the perception of Germany as a footballing nation has changed immeasurably in the last decade, and it would be unfair not to attribute at least a measure of that to Klinsmann. He is a man who builds things.

There is a restless fervour to match the twinkle in Jürgen Klinsmann’s eyes. He deals in identity, in footballing culture, and he is forging something in the smithy of U.S. Soccer. The result might finally tell us, not what’s won and lost, but how they play the game.

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