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Klinsmann’s romantic views mean little in real MLS terms

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Jürgen Klinsmann blew into Toronto this week to meet the local media. It was a super photo op for a Toronto FC club desperately needing some positive press.

With a season-ticket holders’ revolt on their hands — and another season of broken promises of playoff success in the books, the Reds need the German soccer legend more than he or his company, Soccer Solutions, needs them. Klinsmann will be a consultant as the club looks to find a new manager and general manager. But the former German national-team manager isn’t in the running for a permanent job.

When Klinsmann addressed the media, the message wasn’t that he could help the club right away. It was that he needed to assess what Toronto, as an emerging soccer city, wanted. What style of play did the franchise and the fans want to see? Until that’s decided, the team can’t go forward and hire a new front office — or remove the “interim” tag from coach Nick Dasovic. The club needs to find its soul; then find a manager with a philosphy to match.

“One element is very, very important is to know what do you stand for, you as Toronto people, you as Toronto Football Club,” Klinsmann said. “So what is the style of play that you would like to prefer? What do your fans want to see when they go to the stadium? What type of football do they really want to enjoy? And it starts with that.”

Huh?

All of a sudden, Toronto FC is supposed to transform into freakin’ Ajax? With a commitment to entertain?

It was a confusing, frustrating message. And one that doesn’t take into account the realities of Major League Soccer.

MLS clubs can’t commit themselves to some romantic notion about style of play like certain clubs can in Europe. Those European teams operate in stability; they don’t have a central office controlling their spending. They play in small countries where climates are consistent from region to region, and where road trips are done on buses. Players sleep in their own beds at night.

In other leagues that play in the summer months — think Scandinavia or Russia — the climate doesn’t have the kind of variables that you find in North America. To protect places like Chicago, Columbus, Denver or Toronto from having to play games in the blizzards of January, cities like Houston and Dallas host games in scalding summer conditions, where it isn’t all that unusual to see a game played in steamy conditions in excess of 40 C.

As well, there are other variables at play. You can go from playing at sea level in San Jose on a Thursday to having a Sunday game in the altitude of Salt Lake City or Denver. Those changing conditions make it very hard for coaches to take teams on the road and display an attacking style. They need to get their squads through 90 minutes.

And, how does salary cap affect a team’s ability to develop a style? Let’s think about Arsenal. If Marouane Chamakh can’t go, Nicklas Bendtner is available to replace him. And Carlos Vela. The list goes on. There are class strikers available even on the reserve squads. Manager Arsene Wenger can simply plug them into his lineup. But, in MLS, if a DP striker goes down to injury, the guy replacing him is likely making US$50K a season. And unless that person is Chris Wondolowski, option B is a Band-Aid solution. Once the first-team player goes down, the reserves are thin. So if a team has a game on Saturday, Wednesday, then Saturday again, it is challenged. It can’t play free-flowing football all the time.

Has there ever been a Major League Soccer club dedicated to a style of football? Maybe D.C. United in the early ’90s, with its dynasty. But that was more of a case of the club reaching out to smaller soccer nations to find talent, specificially, Bolivia. Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry, whose passports did them no favours, found a place to shine in MLS. But it wasn’t as if DCU had a direct philosophy behind its football.

Maybe the best example of a modern MLS coach to impose a style on a franchise is, ahem, Preki. And look at the aftermath. Chivas USA hired former Bayern Munich Martin Vasquez to inject some flair into a team that was moderately successful under Preki’s defend-and-tackle-everything-that-moves style. Preki’s team was awful to watch, and Vasquez was charged to scorch the Earth. But Vasquez himself was canned at the end of a disappointing season.

And, you know what? Most European sides, even ones 100 years old, that have consistently played a similar style year after year after year are rare. Super rare. Heck, we all use Arsenal as the signpost for an English club that puts style to the forefront. Before 1996, the club was boring, boring Arsenal, known for killing off games rather than taking them by the throat.

Klinsmann is in a weird spot; the likes life in the United States. He came in as a consultant only. But TFC, in need of some positive press, have put what should be a behind-the-scenes consultant into the limelight. The club needs some kind of star power to erase four years of disappointment. Klinsmann should never have been in front of the cameras. He’s going to give Toronto some advice, that’s it.

In the meantime, a club — and, if Klinsmann’s grand statements are to be taken at face value — an entire city need to take stock and decide what kind of footballing product they’d like to see. But, in MLS, things don’t work that way. With a salary cap and so many variables at play, from playing games in extreme temperatures to long road trips, the successful MLS coach is the one who can react and adapt on a week-to-week basis. What Toronto FC needs is a master chameleon, someone like a Bruce Arena who can come up with game plans based on opponents and conditions.

Klinsmann has what looks to be a very black-and-white view of what is a very complex and colourful MLS world.

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