Two Interpretations of Don Garber's Angry Response to Jürgen Klinsmann

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Major League Soccer  Commissioner Don Garber called an impromptu press conference on Wednesday to respond US Men’s National Team coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s comments about the level of play in MLS.

Here’s what Klinsmann said on Monday when asked about Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey’s decisions to take a chunky MLS contract instead of keep playing in Europe:

I made it clear with Clint’s move back and (Bradley’s) move back that it’s going to be very difficult for them to keep that same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest.

And here are the edited highlights of what Garber had to say in his press conference today, including his take Klinsmann leaving Landon Donovan off the 2014 World Cup roster:

Jurgen’s comments are very, very detrimental to our league. They’re detrimental to the sport of soccer in America and everything we’re trying do north of the border. And not only are they detrimental, I think they’re wrong.
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Sending a negative message to any player that signing with Major League Soccer is not going to be good for their career or good for their form, is incredibly detrimental to Major League Soccer. When we have a national team coach who in essence is telling players when they sign with our league that it is not going to be good for their career – and not going to be perceived well by the national team coach who is selecting the US national team – that is incredibly damaging to our league.
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I regret not saying this at that time, and I’ll say it now: I believe Landon should have been in Brazil. Not because he earned it or deserved it, but because his performance dictated it. And if anyone disagrees with that – clearly Jurgen did – then I believe his treatment was inexcusable.
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I have concerns that [Klinsmann’s] criticism – particularly of Michael – is following the same pattern. If Jurgen wants to talk to Michael about what he believes is in the best interest for his career, go ahead and do that. But don’t use a global media platform to do that. I think that is totally unacceptable.
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[Klinsmann] has done a great job with the national team, but he needs to think very, very hard about how he manages himself publicly, and how he should motivate players that are playing in our league.

Garber also made clear that he and other MLS board members sent a “very strong” letter to Sunil Gulati, president of the US Soccer Federation and ultimately Klinsmann’s boss, and that Garber had also sent a note direct to Klinsmann.

So, how to assess Garber’s press conference?

One interpretation is that this was hasty, reactionary and unnecessary. No one was talking about Klinsmann’s comments on Wednesday because he made them on Monday and then there was an actual USMNT game on Tuesday. Soccer fans and media were mostly talking about Jozy Altidore finally finding the net again, Jermaine Jones playing center back, the newly discovered pleasures of Greg Garza, and why on earth the US keeps conceding late goals.

There was no real conversation happening around USMNT players losing their edge by playing in MLS … until Garber put it to the top of the headline pile with his surprise press conference. You could even argue that Garber has made things worse by drawing added attention to Klinsmann’s comments, and made MLS look like a league that, like a touchy teenager, can’t handle straight-forward criticism. It’s no secret that MLS is not up to the same standard as the Premier League or Serie A, not yet and not in the near future.

A second interpretation is that Garber has every right to defend his league and that his actions were preemptive, intended to strengthen MLS by making clear that Klinsmann can’t bash away with impunity. Garber has heard Klinsmann disparage his league one too many times and decided to take action, striking back at Klinsmann to prove that the league can not only take a punch, it can throw one too.

It’s maybe even something of a power play. Klinsmann has it good with MLS—the league produces a steady line of talent that Klinsmann seems perfectly happy to select and play in the World Cup. If MLS is so bad then why weren’t Eric Lichaj and Sacha Kljestan on the plane to Brazil? Maybe Garber’s thinking it’s time Klinsmann learned that you can’t soundbite the hand that feeds you.

However you interpret Garber’s press conference, the important thing is going to be Klinsmann’s reaction. Will he apologize and kiss some MLS ass? Or will he go to the mattresses and start a long-running war of words with the Soccer Don? The sensible part of me wants an American soccer family all pulling in the same direction—let’s all kiss and make up and promise to be nicer to each other going forward, even if means some couples counseling with Sunil Gulati as therapist—favors the former. But the other part of me—the part that enjoys a bit of drama and is ready for some real-talk and a real argument about what works and what doesn’t in Major League Soccer—could stand at least a little of the latter.

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