U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t have to say anything about MLS to touch off the latest war of words between the coach and the league. First, Merritt Paulson, the owner of the Portland Timbers, went on a tirade on the “Soccer Made in Portland” podcast about Klinsmann, saying, “This is a guy who’s got a clear agenda that’s an anti-MLS agenda.” Later, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Benny Feilhaber did some ranting of his own, claiming he and a handful of other MLS players hadn’t been picked for the national team because of their home league.
This is yet another chapter in the supposed conflict between MLS and Klinsmann. It’s a skirmish that’s been bubbling ever since the coach lamented the moves of forward Clint Dempsey and midfielder Michael Bradley from well-known European teams back to MLS. At the time, his criticism so incensed MLS Commissioner Don Garber that Garber called a news conference to demand that Klinsmann get on board with the league or else, branding the coach as heretical to the American soccer cause.
The criticisms of Klinsmann by MLS insiders are a tacit acknowledgment that the league believes that the U.S. men’s national team is still the primary driver of American soccer fandom. Garber’s call for Klinsmann to “embrace the vision” of MLS is, in effect, a plea for help. It’s a sign that he still thinks the league can’t sell itself without well-known players, which come in two flavors: big-name veterans with European-league pedigrees, and popular American heroes. With this in mind, Feilhaber’s anger at not being called up to the national team is understandable. Despite his excellent 2015 season, he’s an afterthought to the league, as long as he doesn’t have a USA jersey or a famous past in Europe.
Klinsmann, who was hired in part to bring an outsider’s perspective to the American game, doesn’t have to participate in the league’s PR blitz. He’s been consistent in calling for each player to play at the highest possible level, and his opinion on the best move changes based on the player. Despite his supposed anti-MLS bias, he has publicly supported moves to MLS for many — including young forward Jordan Morris, who signed this week with Seattle instead of taking an offer from Werder Bremen in Germany.
Neither Paulson nor Feilhaber actually needs Klinsmann’s stamp of approval to be relevant. The Timbers won the MLS Cup this year, and Feilhaber was a shoo-in for the league’s Best XI. In another league, those accomplishments would stand on their own merits, and neither owner nor player would feel the need to worry about the validation of the national team’s coach. Paradoxically, their criticisms serve not to promote MLS, but belittle it.
Klinsmann isn’t the real enemy here. The real issue is MLS’ dependence on the national team for relevance, rather than being confident enough to trumpet its own accomplishments.
• Deloitte put out its annual “Football Money League” report, which confirmed the Premier League’s financial dominance. The list, which covers the 2014-15 season, includes 17 of the 20 Premier League teams. Effectively, finishing 15th in the Premier League is just as lucrative as considerable Champions League success — a sign we’ll see more and more players move to English teams that once were considered small-time.
• The Bundesliga returns from its winter break this week, with exactly half the season left to play. Bayern Munich leads the league by eight points and is the favorite to wrap up the title with a few weeks to go — unless second-place Borussia Dortmund can put an astonishing run together.
The real competition is for the final Champions League spots; five or six clubs believe they can finish in the remaining top four spots.
• Minnesota native Tyler David was taken late in the fourth round of the MLS SuperDraft by the Vancouver Whitecaps, much lower than some thought he’d be taken. He is likely to try to earn a place with the Whitecaps’ affiliate in the USL and work his way up.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Stoke City at Leicester City, 9 a.m. Saturday, NBC Sports. Leicester City continues to roll along with the leaders at the top of the Premier League, despite a punishing stretch of games in December. A win over a Stoke side that is itself pushing for Europe would be as good a sign as any that the Foxes are for real and should be taken seriously as title contenders.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Borussia Mönchengladbach, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. The German winter break is over, and Dortmund knows that any sort of challenge to Bayern Munich will require an impressive string of wins. Mönchengladbach is one of the top teams in Germany, though; a Dortmund loss means it can worry less about a title challenge and more about second place.
Premier League: Chelsea at Arsenal, 10 a.m. Sunday, NBC Sports. Arsenal leads the league and Chelsea is still stuck in 14th, but even so, the Blues have dominated the matchups between the two in recent years. Chelsea fans have accepted that their team won’t defend its Premier League title this season, but they’d love to help ruin the bid of their London rivals.
Serie A: Roma at Juventus, 1:45 p.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. On Oct. 28, Juventus lost 1-0 at Sassuolo. Since then, it’s won 10 consecutive Serie A matches, most of them by three or four goals — an amazing run that’s taken Juve from the bottom of the league back to second place. Roma, too, needs a win to keep pace with the Italian top four. Just slowing Juventus down would be a win.