SI Vault
June 11, 2012
As World Cup qualifying begins for the U.S., coach Jurgen Klinsmann—joyous, intense, analytical, slightly off-kilter—is aiming for nothing less than a complete transformation of the game at all levels in America
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 11, 2012

Now Is The Time In Soccer When We Dance

As World Cup qualifying begins for the U.S., coach Jurgen Klinsmann—joyous, intense, analytical, slightly off-kilter—is aiming for nothing less than a complete transformation of the game at all levels in America

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

Klinsmann's coaching career hasn't been perfect—Bayern Munich fired him in 2009 after less than one season—but the conventional wisdom is that his intensity and his need for time with his family (Debbie, son Jonathan, 15, and daughter Laila, 10) are better suited to the pace of a national team. "In [2006] everyone got swept away by what he did with the German team and how he transformed them," says U.S. forward Landon Donovan. "Having played in Germany and knowing the German mentality, [I think] it was pretty remarkable that he was able to accomplish that. When you get with a coach on a day-to-day basis, you can see how they make those things happen. He didn't just show up during the World Cup and all of the sudden magic was happening. A lot of work goes into it."

Much of it takes place on the field, where Klinsmann and his staff often hold double sessions even on days before games. But each day is also programmed with what Klinsmann views as educational opportunities. "He doesn't think boredom is a particularly strong developmental element," says Warren Mersereau, Klinsmann's longtime partner in the consulting firm Soccer Solutions. For U.S. players, training usually begins at 8:30 a.m. with an "empty-stomach" run for 30 minutes, the better to understand how the body uses energy. Klinsmann has had his players undergo media training and taught them to create their own scouting videos on laptops provided by U.S. Soccer. In January, before a match against Venezuela in Arizona, a nutritionist accompanied the entire squad to a Whole Foods to provide players with instructions on how to improve their diets. While traveling, the team has taken mandatory side trips to the Panama Canal, Versailles, the White House and Ground Zero. "If you have the choice of seeing the Panama Canal or playing XBox for two hours, we make that choice of the Panama Canal for you," Klinsmann says. "Maybe you don't realize as a player how big that is, but later you will."

Klinsmann's unconventional methods extend to the regular tests conducted on players by Athletes Performance, the U.S. training and fitness company. Upon arrival in camp, a player hops on a treadmill to determine his VO2 max, a measure of the body's ability to transport oxygen during exercise and a good gauge of overall fitness. The staff keeps track of his scores over time. "It's a simple way of talking to the player: Hey, this is your VO2 endurance," Klinsmann says. "I can tell you this is the international benchmark, because I have all those benchmarks for Champions League teams and national teams. This is powerful. It's a way of telling them there's a lot there to improve." Regular blood testing of players allows Klinsmann's staff to detect shortages of minerals and give them tailored vitamin supplements.

At other times the players undergo pattern-recognition tests. "You'll see words flash in front of you, and then you have to try to memorize them," says Dempsey. "Then it comes back with other words in it. It tests how you remember things." As another player puts it, "You have aptitude tests, like an IQ test. They want to see where you're at as far as visual reaction and memory."

Some players appreciate Klinsmann's push to get the most out of their bodies and minds. But others remain skeptical, wondering about the potentially invasive aspects of blood tests ("there's not much of a choice"), the amount of blood drawn ("they take, like, seven vials") and the value of players' assembling their own scouting videos. ("That's what you pay somebody else to do," says one player. "My club spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on scouting. Here we have the players do it themselves.") Leave it to the veteran Dempsey, though, to get to the point. "The most important thing is results," he says. "Whatever we're doing off the field, if it contributes to better results, then obviously it's working."

In February, Klinsmann spoke to an overflow crowd of 400 coaches at a U.S. Youth Soccer Association convention in Boston. Unleashing all of his Tony Robbins charisma, Klinsmann asked a question. "So the U.S. goes to South Africa and plays England in the World Cup group stage. What are the chances of winning?" A response came from the crowd: 40%. "O.K., same game, but in the quarterfinals?" A murmur: 20%. "Now why is that? It's the same game. The same players. Something happens here (pointing to his head). Because we've never been in the semifinals [in the modern era], that means the quarterfinal is the final moment? Why can't it be one more game? The same way you can do it in the quarterfinals, the same way in the semifinals."

Sitting in the audience, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati smiled. "Jurgen connects with people. That's very important," says Gulati, who pursued Klinsmann for five years before finally landing his white whale last July. Gulati, a Columbia economics lecturer, wants Klinsmann not just to lead the U.S. to the quarterfinals (or beyond) at the World Cup and to influence youth development, but also to use his charisma to rally the hard-core supporters and win new fans from the broader culture. Or as Gulati puts it, "Selling people on the game without necessarily trying to sell in the typical sense. He's unique that way."

Make no mistake, with Klinsmann the potential for spectacular failure is there. But so is the possibility of greatness. That's what will make the next two years in American soccer impossible to ignore. The questions he asked on the stage in Boston in February are the same ones he's asking his U.S. players. "These are the questions you [will] get answered in Brazil," Klinsmann says. "But, theoretically, I'm saying it's all doable."

Not least because he's done it.

1 2