Jurgen Klinsmann was not a fan of Clint Dempsey's decision to return to MLS last summer. Dempsey made it clear at the time that the never sought Klinsmann's permission and Klinsmann made it clear he would have preferred Dempsey fight it out for playing time in Europe. These are known things.
But they came to forefront again recently when Klinsmann expressed some concern that Dempsey and Michael Bradley had experienced some dip in form.
"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," Klinsmann told the assembled soccer media ahead of Tuesday's game friendly against Honduras. "It's just reality. It's just being honest."
Well, MLS Commissioner Don Garber has no time or patience for Klinsmann's brand of honesty, it turns out.
Garber hastily called a teleconference on Wednesday to denounce Klinsmann's comments and, ostensibly, to stick up for the likes of Dempsey and Bradley. Garber took great umbrage with any insinuation that Dempsey's form had dipped at all, noting that the U.S. captain had scored "two great goals" in Brazil and continues to put in solid performances for his country. It was a little harder to defend Bradley's form -- he is coming off a frustrating season in which he scored just two goal, had four assists and was unable to lead Toronto FC to the playoffs -- but definitely took issue with the insinuation that the move to MLS may have been about anything other than competitive reasons.
"To think we're not aligned with our national team coach is frustrating and personally infuriating," Garber said. "It's not in line with the federation either. Having a strong and vibrant first division in the United States is going to be a key driver of popularity.
"It's frustrating as hell. The contribution is indisputable and it's only going to increase in time. Contrary to Jurgen's assertion that MLS has hindered player development, we've enhanced it."
As well meaning as all of this may have been -- and Garber clearly felt as though there was some honor that needed defending -- it also came off a bit like the ravings of a mad man. I have no doubt that some owners may have called Garber to complain -- heck, maybe Adrian Hanauer or Joe Roth were among them -- but this was not a good look. Garber came off defensive and was simply serving to re-elevate Klinsmann's comments several days after they were made.
Instead of doing anything to diminish Klinsmann's comments, Garber has actually served to give them more attention. Not only are we still talking about this today, but you can rest assured that we'll get a steady flow of new quotes from Bradley and Dempsey once they are asked about them upon returning to their respective clubs.
More to the point, I'm not sure Bradley or Dempsey needed to be defended by the likes of Garber. Focusing on Dempsey, his play speaks for itself. At 31 years old and in the midst of one of his busiest seasons of his career, Dempsey is playing as well as he ever has. The creativity he said was sometimes stifled in England is out in full force. The 18 goals he's scored for club and country in 2014 are the second most he's ever scored in a single season. If there's an edge missing from his game, it's something not readily apparent.
Maybe Klinsmann's point about Bradley is a bit more fair, but blaming whatever struggles he's experiencing entirely on a move to MLS is unnecessarily broad. There are any number of explanations, not the least of which is that he was apparently playing for a dysfunctional team. In any case, it didn't require Garber to take to the bully pulpit and demand that Klinsmann limit his comments about MLS to only elements involving rainbows and unicorns.
The reality is that MLS is not at the level of Europe's top leagues and we don't need to pretend as thought it is. While Klinsmann's desire to point this out at seemingly every opportunity is annoying and probably frustrating for league officials, he's not necessarily wrong either.
Players know this. Coaches know this. That Klinsmann wants his best players competing in the best leagues is not a surprise. But as much as Klinsmann may want that, players have and will continue to make their choices based on any number of realities. Garber's comments surely don't change the equation, they simply serve as a distraction.