A number of articles have noted the new approach of the new coach of the US men’s national soccer team, Jurgen Klinsman. But this is the first one I’ve seen that suggests Klinsman’s outlook is sociological in nature:
What Klinsmann’s hiring is really about is the big picture, about where soccer is going in the United States, how it will be played and by whom?
It is a grand experiment that is as much about sociology and psychology as it is soccer, and one that promises to be — even to Klinsmann — at least as interesting as whatever happens on the field.
“I deeply believe that soccer, in a certain way, reflects the culture of a country,” Klinsmann, who since 1988 has lived in Huntington Beach, Calif., said at his introductory news conference. “You have such a melting pot in this country with so many different opinions and ideas floating around there. One of my challenges will be to find a way to define how a U.S. team should represent its country. What should be the style of play? It is important over the next three years, especially in the beginning, that I have a lot of conversations with people engulfed in the game here to find a way to define style. What suits us best?”
The question of style posed by Klinsmann — one of the few people with the gravitas and wherewithal to carry such a debate from his perch — isn’t simply about aesthetics. It is about empowerment.
Some Americans might think that having a “national soccer style” might seem odd (is there a “national football style”?) but other countries have such approaches. How exactly cultural values match up with soccer play would be interesting to look at in more depth. Are the explanations that the team fits the values simply post-hoc explanations? (A similar argument: the Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers play a particular style of football – tough, good defense, hard running, etc. – because of the industrial cities in which they started.) I suspect a “national style” works because it is meaningful and traditional (and perhaps successful), rather than necessarily more true than other possible styles.
Part of the issue raised by Klinsman (and hinted at in this article) is the culture of US soccer that seems to privilege a particular path related to race and social class: going to expensive sports academies as teenagers and then going to college. Few, if any, other countries follow this route. This is a structural issue: how could the path to playing for the USMNT be altered to open it up to more players, particularly those who can’t afford or don’t want to pursue the “typical” route? As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers, these certain structural advantages help some and not others.
A lot is being asked of Klinsman and cultural changes are difficult to make. But it sounds like Klinsman has some ideas about what to do and US soccer seems to be at a point where people realize it needs to take “the next step.” It will be interesting to watch how the Klinsman sociological experiment goes.