When Jurgen Klinsmann talked about Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey prior to the US Men’s National Team match against Honduras, it was easy to read between the lines to decode the coach speak. Klinsmann has not been shy in his criticism of the US top players returning to Major League Soccer, however a Euro Snub he is not.
Klinsmann recognized what those that watched Toronto FC all season noticed: Bradley was not challenged. Not competitively, like a Champions League-level club with the depth to challenge for minutes would have. No one challenged him as a leader, questioning Bradley’s actions and behavior toward officials. Neither Ryan Nelsen nor Greg Vanney have the stature to challenge Bradley. Klinsmann has both the carrot and the stick. Lumping Dempsey in with Bradley may have been more personal as the captain did not first consult with Klinsmann before leaving he’s beloved Tottenham Hotspurs.
If we were simply left with these comments there would be numerous angles to discuss: mainly the effectiveness of Klinsmann’s management style and MLS competitiveness. Frankly, if not for the possibility to compete in the UEFA Champions League there is an honest conversation to be had regarding the quality of clubs outside of the top 6 to 8 leagues.
Rather the collective US Soccer community has a 27 minute and 14 second teleconference call from MLS Commissioner Don Garber to decipher. While he spoke to and answered questions from reporters, they were clearly not his primary audience. Furthermore, if the soccer writers aren’t the audience neither are the few million fans that frequent soccer dedicated media or at least media outlets with a soccer writer on staff. That leaves three stakeholders to be the audience for Garber’s diatribe: the owners, the players, and the business partners.
It is possible that MLS owners have commented or complained about Klinsmann’s most recent remakes. Returning Bradley and Dempsey for record-breaking fees for a league previously stingy with shelling transfer fees, was largely looked at as a turning point. No one wants to spend tens of millions of dollars, only to be told your product is second rate. Investment in academies and development can be a sink hole for clubs, especially since the US child labor laws prevent academies to be paid for sale of players like in almost every other country. Was his hand forced by the billionaire egos that wanted to put the immigrant help in line?
There is likely no connection between this tirade and the forthcoming collective bargaining talks. Garber’s defence of Dempsey, Bradley and Landon Donovan is not scoring him brownie points with the MLS Players Union. Any angle concerning players is based on negotiations with US and foreign players looking to move to MLS. The league has already shown a bias toward paying premiums for certain high-profile USMNT players, but not others, i.e. Maurice Edu. Are Klinsmann’s comments being used against the league in current talks? Is his comment toward MLS and returning players really detrimental when it comes to possibly buying Jozy Altidore?
The flooded soccer television market means more foreign leagues are cutting into possible corporate partnerships. Heineken, who is synonymous with Champions League, officially became the beer of MLS at a reported $50 million over 5 years. If the global face of American soccer said MLS is a second-rate league in a German accent, international executives might listen. There is no question that Garber was speaking to current and future corporate partners as every communique is an opportunity to sell the league.
Somehow, Garber made Klinsmann appear rational and, if not, sympathetic as this businessman inarticulately attempted to question Klinsmann’s soccer acumen. For years fans and critics of the league assumed a level of amateurism from those at the top after numerous decisions on personnel allocation, and league competition rulings. Going into the 20th year of the league, Garber seems to be content to keep the amateur narrative live.