Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Klinsmann And The Concept Of Openness?

By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 28, 2011) US Soccer Players -- American soccer is currently in the midst of a new policy of, for lack of a better word, “openness.” Specifically, in regards to the United States National Team where head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is making every effort to explain his ideas often and at length to anyone that is willing to listen.

It's hard to avoid him if you have any interest in American soccer. He's on camera, in articles, and giving speeches at soccer events. And it's not just the expected 'coach talk' we hear from so many in his business.

Klinsmann is sharing thoughts on his overarching concepts, sure, but he's also drilling down to specifics in a way that isn't the norm. Ideas on tactics and approach are freely given, especially as it relates to America’s awaking to the sport of soccer, the way it goes about developing its players, and how a national character can be expressed through the way the national team plays. It's at both engaging for the emerging fan and valuable for those that have been around the game. Those dual purposes can sometimes be contradictory, but Klinsmann's enthusiasm carries over.

He's also talking about individual players, up to and including opinions on their club situations and personal communication he’s has had with them about their careers. Again, something that is normally off the table. A German legend by way of Southern California has installed an eye-opening program of transparency after a long period of letting the results on the field speak on behalf of the program.

What Klinsmann is doing is simple. He's changing the way information is passed from those that control it (in this case, Klinsmann himself) to those most hungry to consume it (in this case, the fans and media). Klinsmann’s voice is now an American soccer constant, be it in videos, in quotes appearing in the myriad digital soccer news outlets, or, in the most recent development, in a podcast specifically recorded as a primer for the team’s friendly with Italy on February 29th.

It’s extremely difficult to imagine most soccer coaches doing anything similar here or in any other country. That's especially true at international level, a high stakes game of personalities and gamesmanship where keeping quiet about specifics is taken for granted. Not Klinsmann, in part due to what he learned as a player first, and then applied as a coach. Friendliness gets a person a long way, and so does embracing a new culture.

Klinsmann is the living embodiment of wanton exuberance when it comes to soccer. As a mechanism for engaging the soccer public in his grand experiment, Klinsmann’s voice fills a void and an important one. While the game is growing at a reasonable and respectable pace, the mainstream sports media has yet to take serious interest in the day-to-day world of American soccer.

For Klinsmann, if the attention isn’t going to come to him, he's clearly decided to take the message directly to the people. That's nothing new for North American pro sports, but it's rarely applied to professional soccer.

If Klinsmann was coaching a team in one of America’s big three sports for any professional or big college program, he’d certainly have a weekly show (the ubiquitous “coach’s corner”) to give his thoughts on the direction of his team. Chatting with veteran soccer broadcaster Allen Hopkins on video and podcast is Klinsmann’s own version of the coach’s corner.

Then again, Klinsmann's position is different from any of his predecessors at National Team level. Klinsmann's primary job is to win games, no difference there. But he's also supposed to be changing things from the top down. Klinsmann is a reformer, a coach who sees unfulfilled potential in American soccer and believes he can correct its course.

Listening to Klinsmann talk outside of the usual National Team areas is like listening to a politician lay out a platform. It's a mix of concrete action to be taken and abstract concepts to be explored. And like with politicians, much of that talk is the same thoughts and concepts repeated again and again. Staying on point is part of the project.

The reformer works to change the system without the need to destroy it. Hammering away with his theme of national identity, freeing players so they can express themselves, and playing attacking soccer because it fits the American spirit is, for Klinsmann, about slowly changing attitudes. This was apparent when he was running camps for elite high school players in the United States even before taking the Germany job. For him, the scope of his work is nothing new.

Klinsmann's broader interpretation of the role of National Team coach isn't without its issues. Like any coach, he has to win games with the players available in an environment not of his making. As much control as a coach has, he ends up ceding most of it over 90 minutes. It's a risk Klinsmann knows well, making his choice to talk as openly and as often as he does all the more interesting.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Scouting Report: Italy

From the US NAtional Team Players Association:

By Clemente Lisi , Feb 28, 2012

The United States will put its three-game winning streak on the line Wednesday when it goes up against Italy. The friendly against the four-time World Cup champions at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris – a place US coach Jurgen Klinsmann called “a difficult environment” – will be a tough test for the USA ahead of World Cup Qualifying in June.

While the Americans are preparing for the start of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, the Italians are putting the finishing touches on the 23-player roster that will compete at the European Championship this summer.

Since Italy crashed out in the first round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Azzurri have been a work-in-progress under coach Cesare Prandelli and feature a mix of veterans and newcomers. Gianluigi Buffon can become the most-capped goalkeeper in team history if he gets any playing time. Buffon is currently tied for third-place all-time with Dino Zoff at 112 caps. Both rank behind defenders Fabio Cannavaro (136) and Paolo Maldini (126).

With the exception of Inter Milan’s Giampaolo Pazzini (23 caps and four goals for Italy), Prandelli has called up three other strikers with relatively little experience for the senior team. Sebastian Giovinco (Parma) has six caps and no goals, Alessandro Matri (Juventus) has just four caps and one goal and Fabio Borini (AS Roma), who has scored seven goals this season, is uncapped and got his first call up this past weekend. Prandelli left out an obvious option for an experienced striker, Manchester City's Mario Balotelli. Not completely surprising, since Prandelli has hinted in the past that he may not utilize him for the Euro ’12.

It has been Prandelli’s focus on youth players over the past 19 months that has helped the Italians reemerge following their World Cup disappointment.

“This team has done more than anyone had anticipated,” Prandelli told reporters on Sunday. “We hope to do even better and use the next five months to improve further.”

Italy, currently eighth in the FIFA rankings, qualified for the European Championship fairly easily last year, although it remains a team far below the level of a Spain or Germany. Prandelli has tested several tactical formations over the past year and will likely go with a 4-3-1-2 against the Americans. No matter what lineup he uses, Prandelli said he does not underestimate any opponent.

“Just look at what happened in South Africa,” he said, citing Italy’s loss against Slovakia and draws against Paraguay and New Zealand under his predecessor Marcello Lippi at the last World Cup. “We do not take any game lightly.”

Neither does Klinsmann, who has stressed what's happening with his own squad rather than focusing on the opposition. Fitness appropriate for soccer at the highest level is Klinsmann's goal along with regular exposure to top opponents.

“It’s very important that we get these games, and in particular playing them on the road. That’s when you really get players out of their comfort zone, and they have to deal with a difficult environment on a physical and psychological level,” he said. “Italy is a very smart and experienced team and there is a lot to take away from an experience like this.”

The Americans won the last game they played in Europe, 3-2 over Slovenia in November with a first choice squad. In January, they recorded back-to-back 1-0 wins over Venezuela and Panama with a squad made up primarily of Major League Soccer players. His current squad became an unintentional work in progress after a weekend reshuffle due to injuries.

Klinsmann added midfielder Sacha Kljestan and striker Brek Shea to the squad after Timmy Chandler (left hamstring strain), Jermaine Jones (right calf strain), Landon Donovan (bronchitis), and Jose Torres (right hamstring strain) were all forced to withdraw.

Even with those absences, the Americans will likely field a similar side to the one that beat Slovenia. Eight of the 11 players that started against Slovenia are available to Klinsmann. Midfielder Michael Bradley is the only player on the US roster with Serie A experience, having a standout season with Chievo. Bradley started against Genoa at the Luigi Ferraris stadium earlier this month in a 1-0 Chievo win.

Clemente Lisi is a New York-based writer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bullets from the Revolution

Every year Bexar County offers free weddings on the courthouse steps at midnight on Valentine's Day. This tradition dates back to 1989, begun by Joe Sullivan, pastor of the non-denominational Little Church on the River and the All-Believers Chuch, both in San Antonio. A former Air Force Engineer, he has married over 8,000 people, most of them via his Valentine's Day specials. Last night he encountered something new. One of my best friends, and one of my heroes, John Dean Domingue, organized a passel of same-sex couples to attend, knowing, of course, they could not get licenses, but wanting to demonstrate their love for each other, and partake in a little specialness for Valentine's. They were instructed beforeheand that this was about love, and to not make a scene, not to hurt the joy and celebrations of the other couples who would be present. They had done this last year, but with fewer couples and less fanfare as i understand it. Things changed last night. About a dozen same-sex couples, intending to stand for marriage, lined up on the steps with perhaps 75 other couples. A similar contingent of same-sex couples were in the crowd in support. It was an exuberant and joyous crowd, with no tension that i could detect, a little tittering as folks began to understand what the crowd of folks with multi-colored balloons represented. But as i wandered through and about the crowd, playing the dutiful photographer, i did not hear one single word of ugliness or hatred from anyone in the crowd, period. I took a lot of pics of straight couples and mixed couples and same sex couples, and never did i detect any ugliness. Until Pastor Joe Sullivan took the microphone to address the crowd and marry the couples. First he tried to shoo the same-sex couples off the steps of the courthouse. Not a one budged, nor said anything, nor argued, nor raised a ruckus . . . nor did any of the straight couples, no one yelled, or shoved, or made a scene. Everyone just waited, arm in arm, hand in hand, all stripes and persuasions. Pastor Joe said several times that only God could marry people, people couldn't marry people, and that those were defying God and taking his name in vain by pledging themselves to marriage would face damnation . . . and then brought people right back into the equation by saying no one could get married without a county-issued license. And still these folks, every one, held their ground . . . peacefully, quietly. They were, quite simply, heroic. The more they looked at peace with themselves and each other, the more Pastor Joe condemned them. I cannot imagine a display more simultaneously ‘Christian’ and ‘un-Christian’ – that great, uniquely American conundrum brought vividly to life. Finally, he just dismissed the same-sex couples as damned, and went about his business of marrying, so sprinkled with bawdyish jokes and hints about the instability of marriage that one wonders if his training came in a nightclub. I don’t think anyone expected the ugliness – perhaps being asked to move, perhaps being told that it wasn’t legal, perhaps even being ‘teased’ by parts of the crowd, but the sheer meanness i think came as a surprise. And as badly as he attempted to ruin, perhaps did ruin, the night for the same-sex couples, i think he also ruined a beautiful night for everyone else, the families there to witness something beautiful, and the joy of the folks there for ‘legal’ weddings. It sure put a permanent damper on ‘my’ idea of the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, whatever that is. And then, it was over. As a consequence of the incitement by Pastor Joe, i expected some shouting matches to happen, some ugliness passed on by some of the straight folks who’d had their night crippled. And perhaps some of that went on, but i, again, didn’t hear a single word of it, and i felt i was in the mix enough to have heard it. A rumored ‘mass citizen’s arrest’ by a fundamentalist group didn’t materialize. During the bulk of the ceremony, and the crowd gathering leading up to it, almost an hour’s worth of everyone mingling, nary a single uniformed cop was present anywhere near the plaza. Likely there were some undercover folks watching and taking notes. Then in the last 15 minutes four cop cars appeared around the perimeter seemingly from nowhere, perhaps summoned by someone fearful of what may transpire after the rabble-rousing. But in the end, all was peaceful, cops bantered among themselves but i saw no one approached by any of them. Instead, everyone went on their way, enjoying their moments with families, posing for pictures in front of the fountain and the courthouse and San Fernando Cathedral . . . people kissing, holding hands, smiling . . . straight, gay, transgender. It was quite a beautiful Valentine’s mess of humanity. With the exception of one lone soul, the primary representative of the church in the plaza, all of San Antonio is worthy of a ton of congratulations for their constraint at minimum, their tolerance as well, but i think much more so for the love they exhibited on the one day we celebrate about love. There was an awful lot of love in that place last night, unfettered, it seems, by one man’s evil castigations. As John Dean pointed out in interviews ahead of the event, it’s appropriate that St. Valentine is a saint for having the temerity and courage to couple folks he was forbidden from marrying. Pastor Joe could learn something from that i suppose.

[pictures from the event to follow later this week]