- Ben McCormick

Juergen Klinsmann came to the US National Team with some big ideas. He preached patience, saying he was going to need time to experiment with several different kinds of lineups, formations and tactics. If given time, he justified, he would find the right combination of players to play an attacking style of soccer that was uniquely American.

Then what’s all this “we don’t want to shake up the core structure of the team too much” crap?

Three matches into his USMNT managerial tenure, Klinsi has already found the core of his squad. Through five matches, Klinsmann has capped a total of 26 players with only Danny Williams earning his first ever cap for the US national team. Bob Bradley capped 37 different players in just his first four matches.

For someone who seemed to be preaching sweeping changes, a lot seems to be staying the same. While we continue to see many of the same old faces, young guns like Mix Diskerud, and Josh Gatt can’t even get a sniff of camp.

Logically, all three fit the Klinsmann call-up criteria: starting every week for their clubs at a respectable level. Josh Gatt is first XI for the soon-to-be Norwegian champions and Diskerud has amassed 75 appearances for Stabek in Norway since his first team career started in 2008, becoming one of Stabek’s most important cogs. Diskerud and Gatt also are rumored to have clubs in the very best European leagues after them

So what gives, Juergen? These players play at positions with anything but certainty when it comes to the USMNT, so why aren’t they getting their chance?

At first instinct, you might say Klinsmann doesn’t value youth. Not true. To the contrary, Klinsmann loves youth in his squads. 11 of Klinsmann’s German 23 man roster for the 2006  World Cup were age 25 or younger.  Also, on his scouting trip to Germany last month, he took time out to observe and talk to Joe Gyau and Charles Renken, two American youth players at Hoffenheim. Simply, he certainly does not shy away from young players.

When Klisnmann was hired, he said he would establish a new soccer culture. He’s European-ized things about the national team like assigning the starters numbers 1-11 or putting his initials on his coaching clothing. Aside from the fashion changes, though, the biggest change Klinsmann is trying to hard wire into the new American soccer culture is the vitality of the youth national team system.

It’s no secret Klinsmann spearheaded the effort to streamline and invest in the German youth national teams during his time as the German manager. Such efforts on his part resulted in players like Thomas Muller making near-seamless transitions into the full national team. Based on these successes, I pose he’s making a similar effort in the United States.

Skeptical? Wondering why he would spend so much time on the youth teams when the senior team is reeling? You’re in good company. Here’s my best attempt at justifying investing in youth.

The obvious first question to ask is, “why is investing in the youth system important to the full national team?” Let’s take Spain for example. Within 14 months, Spain won the World Cup, the U-21 EURO and U-19 EURO tournaments.  Needless to say, they’re a shining example of what a youth program should be about.

Having said all that, try and guess how many members of Spain’s World Cup winning squad never made an appearance for a youth national team. Go on, guess.

I give up. Zero. Not a single member of their World Cup winning squad went without making an appearance for a youth national team. In fact, the average number of youth national team levels represented by a player on Spain’s World Cup team was 3.5.  Andres Iniesta represented a team-high seven levels followed by Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres with six. Gerard Pique, Xavi Hernandez, Juan Mata and David Silva follow up with 5 and three others have represented four levels.

What’s the largest number of levels a 2010 US World Cup player represented? Three. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Jonathan Spector and Jozy Altidore played at the U-17, U-20 and U-23 levels. A quarter of the US roster never appeared for any youth national team. Putting that in perspective, only a quarter of Spain’s World Cup roster appeared at less than three youth levels. Four players represented one level and two represented two levels.

There are many excuses for this disparity. The size of the United States makes identifying top talent at the U-15 and U-17 levels extremely difficult. Additionally, Spain has eight total youth levels players can represent whereas the US only has five. It’s unreasonable to expect Klinsmann to establish new youth national team levels, but he can do our YNT system a big favor by synchronizing those levels. This means, ideally, once a player ages out of or becomes too talented for one level, they can transfer into the next level seamlessly.

All of Spain’s youth teams play a similar style, making that transition easier for players. This concept is severely lacking in the US. Since Bob Bradley was hired as national team manger (and arguably before that during the Bruce Arena era), the United States have played a defensive 4-4-2 style with the full national team, attempted Dutch total football at the U-20 level and played a Latin-American 4-3-3 style at the U-17 level, all at the same time.

Given Klinsmann’s sweeping changes to the playing style of the full national team, it’s easy to understand the attraction of calling up a young player who has already gone through the growing pains his new system rather than bringing in a new player who is entirely unfamiliar with it, making a synchronized youth system all the more alluring.

On that same note, the common denominator between the 2010 Spain and US World Cup rosters is the players who represented the most YNT levels appear to be among the best the national team has to offer. Sure, some players are late bloomers (Maurice Edu) or come out of nowhere (Jay DeMerit). Heck, David Villa played at just one level of the Spanish YNT system, but the point remains largely the same, exposure to the same system from an early age produces the best players. Remember, Iker Casillas, Fernando Torres and Andres Iniesta lead Spain in levels represented and Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore and DaMarcus Beasley lead the US.

With the rumors of Caleb Porter’s hiring as the U-23 manager and Tab Ramos as the U-20 manager with a possible U-18 appointment still on the way, Klinsmann appears to be starting the process of synchronizing the US Soccer system. Like Klinsmann, Ramos and Porter favor attacking styles with emphasis on possession.

Guys like Diskerud and Gatt may not be snubbed by Klinsmann at the full national team level because of lack of skill or whatever other excuse there is, but rather he wants talent at his youth levels. Give Gatt and Diskerud two or three camps at the U-23 level and watch them transition into the full national team like they’d been there the entire time.

With the full national team, Klinsmann is trying to teach an old dog new tricks, and he knows it. Trying to get players already in their mid-20s or early 30s to play a style unfamiliar to them is like pulling teeth. Where Klinsmann is likely to leave his indelible mark on US Soccer is in introducing the new system to players as early as possible in their careers through the youth national teams.

So instead of lumping Gatt and Diskerud in with the old guard, Klinsmann may well be saving them to learn the new system along with the other young, promising and talented Americans. Don’t be surprised to see guys like Juan Agudelo or in some cases Tim Chandler, Jozy Altidore and Brek Shea go to U-23 camps when there is a full national team camp going on. This way, he can bring the youth through all at once after the Olympics, all entrenched in the system and ready to contribute to his style.

All of this requires a tremendous amount of the patience Klinsmann asked for when he was named manager of the USMNT. Given the track record of success for those countries who commit to the youth national team system, I’ll grant him that patience.

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