LONDON (AP) – Until Lionel Messi gains American citizenship or the United States grows a prodigy of its own -- by the way, whatever happened to Freddy Adu? -- the hiring of a coach will have to pass for a watershed moment when it comes to soccer in this country.
And so it is with Jurgen Klinsmann.
The United States will make its debut under Klinsmann, the former Germany star and coach, in an exhibition Wednesday against Mexico in Philadelphia. But forget about that game's outcome, or, for that matter, many of the others in the lead-up to the 2014 World Cup. There will inevitably be ups and downs, as the new coach tinkers, players are shuttled in and out and everyone figures each other out between now and Brazil.
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.
In a country where the ethos of "being all you can be" and the "land of opportunity" is deeply rooted, Klinsmann's inclusive approach will be liberating for an entire program that had become stale.
On the micro level, it might be a veteran forward like Edson Buddle or a novice like Juan Agudelo being introduced to nuances of the position by one of Europe's savviest strikers. Or that Klinsmann has not yet hired a staff, but is bringing in a series of guest coaches, as well as those such as new U.S. youth technical adviser Claudio Reyna, to help foment an exchange of ideas that will trickle down to the youth levels.
No group should be more invigorated by Klinsmann's hiring than Latinos, who have long felt marginalized by an Anglo-centric soccer hierarchy that values size, strength and athleticism over technical skill and creativity. (There is a sharp divide on this. Many within U.S. Soccer believe these players aren't undervalued or under-evaluated, they just aren't good enough.)
For Wednesday, Klinsmann has called in three players who went to Mexico as teenagers to begin their professional careers because they felt there were better opportunities. Midfielder Jose Torres and defenders Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco-Fiscal have spent much of the past five years playing in the Primera Division. Adu, like Torres, a crafty left-footed midfielder, has also been called in.
To his credit, former coach Bob Bradley brought Torres in late for the World Cup and threw Adu a lifeline for the Gold Cup (wisely, as it turned out, as Adu played a key role in both goals against Mexico). But when the United States played Ghana in an elimination game in the World Cup, Bradley turned to two players in his starting lineup that fit the American prototype -- a teeth-rattling tackler in midfielder Ricardo Clark and speedy-but-raw forward Robbie Findley. Each performed poorly.
Bradley was, at heart, pragmatic. The best Americans, by far, are Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, and neither would have a prayer of playing for Spain, Brazil, Germany, Holland or any other elite team. In that light, it makes perfect sense to sit back, defend and then respond with decisive counterattacks. Better to have a (counter) puncher's chance than none at all.
But playing for today, or for the next World Cup cycle, is not going to push the United States any closer to those teams, a point driven home against Mexico last month. After the United States hit quickly with a pair of counterattacking goals, Mexico's skill and creativity eventually overwhelmed the Americans, the final goal in Mexico's 4-2 victory coming on a ridiculously audacious chip by Giovani Dos Santos.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati stewed as he stood on the podium and congratulated Mexico's ebullient players, so it was not surprising that he would finally turn over the keys to the whole program to Klinsmann, something he would not do in 2006 or again after the 2010 World Cup.
Klinsmann, in two years and through a torrent of criticism and resistance, transformed Germany from an organized, efficient and predictable team to one that was wide-open, relentless in attacking and, quite implausibly, fun.
The challenges are no doubt different now. But the possibilities are, if not quite limitless, certainly intriguing.
And when was the last time that could be said about U.S. Soccer?