On Thursday May 29th, Jurgen Klinsmann announced his 23 player roster for the World Cup and rocked the soccer world. The former is a normal duty of all national team coaches — all 32 teams must do likewise no later than Jun 3. Like a good German, Klinsi is prompt. Throughout the world, as soon as the names hit the media, pundits everywhere go to work on two pieces:
- Who was left out and why this is a mistake
- Who is in, and what does it mean?
Some huge names fall into the “snubbed” category, like Tévez for Argentina and Nasri for France. But Jurgen’s decision to leave Landon Donovan at home became one of the biggest stories worldwide. I think if you exclude our goalkeepers and asked people
around the world to name a pro from the US, they’d say Landon, Bradley, or Dempsey. Landon is a poster child for our team. He has endorsements alongside Hope Solo for Seiko watches. He scored the biggest goal in US history* most people would say.
So why is he out?
There is not one answer. Here are three. Perhaps the truth is among them.
* = I think Caligiuri’s goal to get us into Italy ’90, scored November ’89 was the biggest in our history. (click for the video) We’ve been to every WC since. But that year it hinged on his long-distance bomb on a windswept, bumpy pitch in Port-of-Spain.
One: The Butcher
“Jurgen is not a friend of compromise,” says Bernhard Peters, a German sports executive who has been close with Klinsmann for more than a decade. “He wants to do it his way.” Faithful readers of this blog, both of you, will recall previous posts on Jurgen’s personal style. He completely understands that as the coach, he will be judged on outcomes. At the same time he will be subject to an endless chorus of second-guessing. All coaches, and in fact anyone who has to make decisions for a living must go through this. Try to build consensus by listening to those involved, or put your individual stamp on matters? In this decision, Klinsmann is sending a message to the remaining 23, and beyond: he is dead set on having the players who can serve US soccer the best and your reputation for past accomplishments counts for nothing. Klinsmann has consistently articulated the fact that being a professional athlete is all about what you can do today. Every player who aspires to make the squad has to fight for his place every day. There are no legacy picks, and no one is indispensable. How can his players know he seriously believes this? Dropping Landon shows he means every word of it. In the aftermath, he clarified his thinking on performance vs. reputation:
“This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”
A famous Lao Tzu saying, one I try to live by, is “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves.'” but this is not Klinsi’s style. He knows that football is a results-based business and he will keep or lose his job based on what his team does in the coming weeks. If your livelihood sits on a knife’s edge, how to you manage — by trying to build consensus at every turn, or by doing what you are convinced is the best thing to do and disregarding the voices of criticism and “we’ve never done that before . . .”?
Klinsmann has always followed the latter path. When he coached at Bayern, he immediately brought in big changes like professional fitness coaches from the US, building space for yoga, and even placed a small statue of Buddha in the training center. When
Bayern did not immediately overachieve, he was fired by the greybeards whose feathers he had ruffled. The New Yorker notes, “The statues were quickly taken down after Klinsmann’s departure, but, in Germany, they remain a symbol of his penchant for pushing change in sweeping, sometimes reckless fashion.” But we saw that he was a man who would bring change and not worry about it.
He was consistently on message about the need to commit; Jurgen does not worry about making an unpopular decision. In fact, he almost seems to relish them as a sign there’s a new sheriff in town. What about the voices who criticize his every move? Klinsmann has come to a conclusion about the media:
“You think that what’s said about you in the press is important. But in reality the only important thing is what you make of yourself.”
Two: The Baker
Early days. Did you know Jurgen’s family owned a bakery, and that he would work there every morning before going off to train for soccer? This experience clearly shaped his work ethic, and he continually talks about the value of guys who want to work hard.
Did you also know that this is not the first time Jurgen has coached Landon? They were together in 2009 when both were at Bayern Munich. It wasn’t Landon’s first trip to Germany. He spent time with Bayer Leverkusen but he did not prosper there. Later he was at Everton with some success. But as Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl wrote, maybe the critical episode took place in 2009 when Klinsmann “brought Donovan over on loan, telling his bosses at Bayern that this was the player he wanted most in the winter transfer window.”
Donovan washed out and was sent back to the MLS. Shortly after Klinsmann was fired. We may never know the full story there but I think there was a seed planted there. A seed of failure, perhaps of work habits, of pure talent over commitment.
Recently, Landon did not seem on board with Jurgen’s challenge to push himself and prove himself every day. He infamously took a four-month sabbatical right in the middle of the World Cup qualifying; his actions said, “See ya, good luck. I’ll play if you qualify.” While Jurgen was diplomatic about it, the telling statement to me was when he said it was something he would never have considered in his playing days. Right before the final cuts, Landon talked in the press about how his game was changing. He wouldn’t rely on speed to beat guys 1v1, and instead was becoming more of a passer. In previous camps he won the grueling “beep test” but this year Bradley topped him.
Landon’s failures in Germany gave Klinsmann reason to doubt his character. His time off looked like a lack of total commitment. His declining speed and fitness meant there would not be a repeat of the miraculous, lung-busting injury time goal he scored against Algeria in South Africa. Jurgen famously loves California, its culture, its climate. But the baker’s son, used to going to work at 4am, could not trust the California kid, no matter how talented he was.
Three: The Quarter-finals maker
The Organizational Design people have a motto for instilling change: “Unfreeze, Change, Re-freeze.” Step One is break down the existing status quo. Next, make the necessary changes:
After the uncertainty created in the unfreeze stage, the change stage is where people begin to resolve their uncertainty and look for new ways to do things. People start to believe and act in ways that support the new direction. ( . . .)
Unfortunately, some people will genuinely be harmed by change, particularly those who benefit strongly from the status quo. Others may take a long time to recognize the benefits that change brings. You need to foresee and manage these situations.
Time and communication are the two keys to success for the changes to occur. People need time to understand the changes and they also need to feel highly connected to the organization throughout the transition period. When you are managing change, this can require a great deal of time and effort and hands-on management is usually the best approach.”
Many have pointed out that if the US team goes no further than it has in the past — eliminated in the round of 16 — the new direction will not be viewed as a success. The federation is paying Klinsmann much more than previous coaches, he has more control over US Soccer decisions and the coaching staff, and he had money to convene the team for weeks prior to the start of the Cup. If getting the same result would be failure, why would he take that power and that salary, and then decide to go into battle with the same players, four years older?
The hubbub surrounding the new direction has fit perfectly into the change model as well as Kubler-Ross’ theories on grief. But if you study the change curve, two things are clear:
- US performance will take a dip as the players absorb the change. That is why it was brave and intelligent to make the cut before the three tune-up games, and allow them time to move on.
- The team is now prepared to rise above its past history. Not guaranteed, but prepared.
In leaving Donovan out, Klinsmann has reached deep in to his personal experience of valuing hard work, and combined that with his preference for the big, fast change. Regardless of whether the USMNT gets out of the group, he’s fearlessly made the moves that allow the team to achieve the desired next level of success. And that’s why we brought him in.
Other good views on the subject: