By Erik Kirschbaum
NEWPORT BEACH Calif. (Reuters) - United States coach Juergen Klinsmann said on Thursday that he was not criticizing or disparaging Major League Soccer by expressing regret that key players Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley had switched to the MLS from two of Europe's top clubs.
Saying he welcomed a growing culture of impassioned debate over soccer issues in the United States such as the one that erupted this week over his comments, Klinsmann added the MLS had improved a lot in recent years and was clearly on the rise.
In an interview with Reuters near his adopted home, Klinsmann said he simply wanted to see the best American players compete in the pressure-packed atmosphere of the world’s best leagues in Europe to be ready for the challenges of the next World Cup in 2018.
“It’s great to see that we have debates and public discussions like this because that shows that more and more people care about soccer in this country,” Klinsmann said when asked about criticism from MLS Commissioner Don Garber about his views.
“In Europe, in South America and in Mexico we’re all used to this,” Klinsmann said. “It’s part of people’s everyday lives – to have debates about different opinions. It’s just starting now in the United States and I think it’s pretty cool.”
The World Cup in Brazil, where Klinsmann led his team into the round of 16 with a victory over Ghana and a thrilling draw against Portugal, was a watershed moment for U.S. soccer, he said.
“The World Cup transferred a lot of energy to the game here. This creates a lot of different opinions and also some misunderstandings.
"I never meant to put anyone down in the MLS by saying we need the highest level possible for our players no matter where they play. It was just an attempt to explain that players need to always strive to the highest possible level.”
Garber had criticized Klinsmann for saying players switching to the MLS from Europe could be hampered by a drop in form.
“Juergen’s comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America ... they are wrong,” Garber said, adding they were “incredibly damaging and personally infuriating.”
Klinsmann said he believed Garber had misunderstood him.
“I’d simply respond to Don that it’s just not the case and I would never criticize the MLS or the clubs,” said Klinsmann, a former Germany striker and coach who recently turned 50.
“I simply try to help the players understand where they are right now and where they could be, and let them know if I see them taking a step backwards a little bit. I just try to wake them up and say ‘you need to go in the other direction’.”
Before the U.S. friendly against Honduras on Tuesday, Klinsmann had said he was concerned that Bradley, who moved from AS Roma to FC Toronto, and Dempsey, who left Tottenham for Seattle Sounders, could suffer a drop in form because they would no longer be facing the intense pressures in clubs that compete for spots in the Champions League.
“I think some things were a little misread into my comments,” Klinsmann said. “Our job on the coaching staff is to help the players understand the level they’re at and how to get to the level we want them to play at. That takes realistic conversations, not critical remarks.”
Klinsmann said the continued positive development of the MLS could play an important role in the development of U.S. soccer.
“The MLS has definitely gotten a lot better. Every year you can see an improvement in the game," he added.
"A lot of that comes from the way the league is growing and the environment around it all. The facilities and everything is all becoming more professional all the time.
"The fan base is growing and so are the expectations of the fans. The people really care about their teams in the MLS and that’s just great. It creates more energy. We want to use that energy.”
(Editing by Simon Evans / Ian Ransom)