FOX Soccer Exclusive
Klinsmann concerned over US youth state
In the wake of the US Men's Under-23 national team's failure to qualify for the 2012 Olympics, there have been any number of theories as to just why the Americans failed to qualify.
Whether it is Caleb Porter's inexperience, or the overconfidence of an overhyped group of young players, there are plenty of issues to point to, but one topic that hasn’t been discussed much is just how much first-team playing time young American players actually are actually receiving, both in MLS and abroad.
Whether it is MLS, where the increasing number of veteran foreign players being signed is leading to stiffer competition and fewer minutes for young Americans, or in Europe, where many top young Americans are stuck on reserve teams or youth teams.
"That is definitely a concern," Jurgen Klinsmann said about playing time for young Americans. "It's definitely a topic we want to bring up with (MLS Commissioner) Don Garber and MLS because we want to make sure that younger groups of players get as much exposure as possible coming through the developmental stage.
"I know that an 18, 19, 20-year old is not at the same level as an experienced player and a proven player, but we’ve got to make sure that they get the chance to break through and get their minutes in."
Consider the starting defense for the United States in the decisive Olympic qualifier against El Salvador. Of the four starting defenders and defensive midfielder, four don’t see much playing time for their MLS teams. Perry Kitchen, who starts for D.C. United was the lone exception.
That doesn't excuse the fact the Americans failed in a tournament they should have been able to progress out of, but it does raise a serious question about what the country's best young talent is dealing with in terms of the fight for regular playing time.
Klinsmann knows the importance of regular playing time for youngsters. He knew it as head coach of the German national team when he worked with the German Federation and Bundesliga to implement measures to force first division clubs to invest more into player development and establish reserve teams that play in the lower divisions of Germany. That structure has helped give young Germans invaluable experience as they move up the development ladder, and is a key reason Germany is once again one of the strongest national teams in the world.
"It's a big concern," Klinsmann said. "We need to find ways to get our 18 to 22-year-olds more playing time and maybe, here and there, more help."
Klinsmann is careful to point out that, ultimately, it is up to players to fight for playing time, and for some of the best young American players, it is a fight they must win if they are going to maintain their place in the national-team pecking order.
"(Players) also need to realize that they have to fight their way through the system," Klinsmann said. "They have to find a way to break into the team. I'll give you an example. Juan Agudelo, who often last year was saying 'I want to play more. I need to play more.' My response to Agudelo was, 'Well, you've got to train harder and you've got to force the coach of that team until he makes you play.
"It's not something that is given to you," Klinsmann told Agudelo. "It's something that you have to work for and you have to fight your way through.
"We had a discussion years and years after the Bosman ruling in Europe happened. Everything opened up. The borders opened up. Suddenly, instead of a limited amount of foreigners, there were foreigners all over in every league. Every national team program complained and said, 'Hey, suddenly we don’t have enough of our domestic kids playing anymore and it makes it tough for the national team programs to develop.'
"I came in and said: 'You know what? If I'm the player and I want to break into the team, it doesn't really matter to me if now I have to kick out a foreign kid or if I have to kick out a domestic kid. I have to kick somebody out to play.
"That’s really the message to the youngsters," Klinsmann said. "Yeah, we understand you should play more, but you have to build your case. You have to fight your way through and you have to do more than whoever is in front of you.
"Show the coach that you're better and that you work harder and that you're hungrier and you’re more aggressive than the guys in front of you. Sooner or later that coach will play you because the coach will play the players that give him the best chance to win the game."
Klinsmann is fully aware that the current system for young American players is one that needs work, but every step in the path young American players take from childhood to the pros is in a state of flux as Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer leaders look for ways to revamp the system.
There are plenty of new developments in American player progression, from the increasing emphasis on MLS Youth Academies, to US Soccer's own Player Development Academy system, which is growing rapidly and establishing new guidelines for how to develop top young talent.
The hope for Klinsmann, and for American soccer, is that these changes can lead to American players developing at an earlier age, and being prepared at a younger age to compete for minutes at pro level. Until that happens more consistently, top young American talent will continue to struggle to live up to expectations, and will continue to deliver disappointing results.
Change appears to be on the way, and if Klinsmann's vision for a new system becomes a reality, we could see the days of top young talent languishing on pro benches come to an end. If and when that happens, the days of disappointing results for American youth national teams will finally become a thing of the past.
2012 was supposed to be a breakout year for Brek Shea. With Klinsmann making him a regular part of the national-team set-up, and growing rumors of European suitors lining up, Shea was set to make this year a special one.
It hasn’t quite started out that way.
Three months in, Shea has already played multiple national team games, as well as the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and a handful of games for FC Dallas. The reviews on those performances aren’t exactly flattering.
Whether it is down to fatigue, or just a young player dealing with the weight of expectations, Shea has yet to look like the player who was dominating MLS less than a year ago, and forcing his way into the national team picture with some encouraging displays.
Shea’s showing at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament was a mixed bag. He started well against Cuba, but then was a relative non-factor in key results against Canada and El Salvador. His decision to try and play a ball in the dying seconds of the El Salvador match rather than simply kicking the ball clear ultimately led to El Salvador’s fateful equalizing goal, which eliminated the Americans from Olympic Qualifying.
His return to FC Dallas last week, in a 4-1 loss to D.C. United, was uneventful. He floundered through a 90 minutes that saw him complete just 10 of 24 passes and you had to expect that from a player who just played three matches in five days and endured the gut-wrenching disappointment of seeing his Olympic dream die.
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So is there cause for concern about one of the most promising young players in the US national team set-up, and one of the faces of Major League Soccer? Klinsmann doesn’t think so.
"Brek is going through a normal kind of period in his career," Klinsmann said. "There are good moments, and then there are less good moments. Now he's experienced ups and downs through Olympic Qualifiers. He experienced in the last couple of months a tremendous amount of attention that is thrown toward him.
"He needs to get himself balanced, basically, on and off the field," Klinsmann added. "It's a very normal process he’s going through and, thankfully, he's going through that process because it shows that he has a lot of talent."
Klinsmann's affinity for Shea is made clear by the fact he is the only player to play in every US national team game Klinsmann has coached. Klinsmann also helped arrange Shea’s training stint with Arsenal during the winter.
Could the heavy workload this winter, between his Arsenal stint, multiple senior team and Under-23 national team camps and matches, be taking their toll? It might seem silly to suggest considering players around the world are playing demanding schedules, but the reality is Shea has never had a winter so busy and jam-packed and it could be resulting in a player who is tired and not as sharp.
We saw similar from Shea last summer, when a grueling stretch of games for FC Dallas and the national team led to him hitting a wall and losing what had previously been MVP-caliber form. Instead of being the incisive winger who could break down defenders with purposeful runs and dangerous crosses, Shea began losing his sharpness and became too predictable.
Shea doesn’t have time to rest at this point. FC Dallas is off to a slow start and the games are coming quickly. He doesn't have time to dwell on the Olympic qualifying disappointment, or think about whatever transfer distractions may still exist. His focus should be on getting back on the field and finding the form that made such a big-time prospect in the first place.
2012 may have started slowly for Shea, but there is still plenty of time to turn things around.
MLS CRACKING DOWN
When Major League Soccer announced a trio of suspensions for questionable plays that took place the previous weekend, it sent a clear message throughout the league that officials were serious about cracking down on dirty and unsporting play.
Vancouver's Atiba Harris (flagrant elbow), D.C. United's Brandon McDonald (tackle from behind) and FC Dallas' Jair Benitez (multiple elbows) were all suspended for plays that saw them only draw either fouls or yellow cards. Even D.C. midfielder Danny Cruz was fined for pretending to be elbowed in the face by Benitez, whose elbows landed to his body.
The message is clear. Play dirty, and even if the referee doesn’t catch it, the MLS disciplinary committee stands a good chance of catching it, and suspending you in the process. The mandate is unlikely to transform MLS into a finesse league overnight, but if it can clean up some of the dirty stuff that goes on, and lead players to be cleaner and more honest about their play, the league and its fans will benefit.
SALGADO IN NO-MAN’S LAND
When the Vancouver Whitecaps made Omar Salgado the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLS Draft, the then-17-year-old striker was seen as a long-term project with the kind of potential to eventually be a big-money transfer target.
Some 15 months on from that draft, Salgado finds himself buried deep on the Whitecaps depth chart, looking no closer to seeing minutes than he did a year ago. That shouldn't come as a complete surprise considering the number of established forwards Martin Rennie has on his roster, such as Sebastien LeToux, Eric Hassli and Camilo. But the glaring question at this point is why hasn't the club sought to find such a prized young commodity playing time somewhere else?
Sources tell FOX Soccer that the Whitecaps have not only rejected trade inquiries within MLS about the 18-year-old forward, but also turned down an opportunity for a loan deal to Europe, as well as potential loan moves to the NASL.
The result is a young player floundering on the bench while the buzz that surrounded his arrival in 2011 fades. His lack of playing time has apparently cost him on the youth national team front as well, with new U.S. Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos not even calling Salgado up despite the fact he held a key role in the previous U-20 cycle as one of the youngest players on the squad.
It remains unclear what Vancouver has planned for Salgado, but the fact the team drafted yet another young striker (Darren Mattocks) with a first-round pick this year makes you wonder whether it does still have a real plan for him. It could simply be a case of Salgado not being good enough for Vancouver, but that doesn't really explain why the team wouldn't at least entertain the possibility of loaning him out or even potentially selling him to a European club interested in a young talent with a Spanish passport.
While Salgado bides his time deep on the Whitecaps bench, fellow members of the draft class of 2011 are thriving in MLS. The five players picked after him are all starters for their clubs, while fellow first-round pick C.J. Sapong has already earned a senior national team call-up.
Salgado is younger than all of them, so it shouldn't be a complete surprise that it is taking time for him to adapt to the pro game. But after a rookie season that saw him struggle for minutes, and now a second season that seems him being buried deep on the forward depth chart, we are left to wonder just what the future holds.
SOUMARE BACK TO MLS?
At a time when several MLS teams are in dire need of central defensive help, there is word that one of the best centerbacks MLS has produced in recent years wants to come back to the league.
Former Chicago Fire defender Bakary Soumare is interested in a return to MLS, and could come back to the league this summer, sources close to Soumare told Fox Soccer. He is currently on loan from French club Boulogne to German second division side Karlsruhe.
Soumare left MLS in the summer of 2009, signing with Bolougne for approximately $2 million, a then record transfer fee for an MLS defender (broken recently by Tim Ream's $3 million switch to Bolton). Boulogne was in Ligue 1 that season, but was eventually relegated. Soumare was a fixture for the club, also establishing himself with the Mali national team in the process.
Prior to leaving MLS, Soumare had been a finalist for MLS Defender of the Year in 2008, and saw playing time as a defensive midfielder before settling into a centerback role with the Fire.
Sources close to Soumare tell Fox Soccer that he wants to return to MLS in the summer. Among the clubs who could make moves for his services are Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto FC and Montreal.
KLINSMANN’S QUALIFYING STARTING XI
The US men's national team's first World Cup qualifier (against Antigua & Barbuda) is still two months away, but it isn't too early to consider what a starting lineup for the USA in that match might look like.
Here is the Starting XI we project Klinsmann using for that match as of now:
Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Timmy Chandler, Michael Bradley, Jose Torres, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Jozy Altidore.
Remember, this is the squad I could see Klinsmann putting together for that match come June, which means Onyewu would be recovered from the knee injury that has sidelined him in recent weeks.
Who else could crack this lineup? Well, if Herculez Gomez keeps on scoring goals, he just might be able to. Jermaine Jones is another possibility in a defensive midfield role alongside Bradley in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
QUICK FIX FOR LA GALAXY’S DEFENSIVE WOES
Given the LA Galaxy's troubles in central defense, it shouldn’t be too long before Bruce Arena contemplates sliding right-back Sean Franklin into a centerback partnership with A.J. De La Garza. Franklin has played the position before and done well there. That would leave a void at right back, but converted forward Bryan Jordan is being groomed to play right-back and could provide a capable replacement.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.
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