Can an American Help Save German Soccer's Troubled Super-Club?

David Wagner, a former U.S. national team star, is one of just five American coaches in European soccer. He's a key part of one of Germany's biggest teams.

Feb 19 2015, 3:45pm

There are times in life when the immediate future seems knowable, like we're traveling down a well-lit path. You start college, say, or you get a job—you allow yourself to plan. But then the inevitable moment comes when that path takes an unforeseen turn. Maybe you're laid off. Maybe you're injured. Or maybe the change is positive: you meet someone, or an old friend gives you life-altering advice. David Wagner—one of just five professional American coaches in European soccer—had one such moment in 2005, when chatting with Jurgen Klopp.

Wagner, whose dad is American but has spent almost his entire life in Germany, hung up his cleats in 2002, after a long playing career in Germany's top two divisions. "After nearly 11 years, it was enough," he says. With Schalke, Wagner won the UEFA Cup in 1997. He made eight appearances with the U.S. national team and almost went to the 1998 World Cup, only for Eric Wynalda, the first choice striker back then, to recover from injury in time for the tournament.

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"So I thought, I played football in the whole world. I saw everything. It was good, thank you." Wagner claps his hands together as though knocking off dust. "[Time to] try to start something new."

That something new was teaching. At a university in Darmstadt, a city just south of Frankfurt, he double majored in biology and sports science and earned his teaching credential. On the side, he dusted off his cleats and played a little ball, turning out for a fifth division club in nearby Weinheim. There, he and his wife bought a home and had their second child. His future was set.

Then Klopp came around.

Klopp and Wagner were roommates for four years in the early 1990s, when they both played for Mainz. They'd been close friends ever since. Wagner was even the best man at Klopp's wedding. By 2005, Klopp was head coach of Mainz and had just succeeded in getting the team promoted to the Bundesliga.

That year, Wagner had begun "feeling this fire" to return to the sport professionally, and he sought advice from "Kloppo," as he refers to his friend. Klopp encouraged him to leave teaching, move into coaching, and apply for his UEFA Pro License. The Pro License is the highest-level coaching certificate offered in Europe, and today it's required for head coaches in the top three German divisions. Klopp received his that year. With Wagner's academic background and teaching credential, Klopp thought he'd have a unique and attractive resume.

"You played as a professional. Now you studied [two subjects]," Wagner remembers Klopp telling him. "And when you have the Pro License, please give me one name who has all these four things. Give me one coach's name with these four things."

They both thought about it, and, in the end, they came up with one, but only one—a coach who'd studied math. Two years later, Wagner had his Pro License and his first job with a Bundesliga team, as the U17 coach at Hoffenheim.

"Normally a player, after his playing career, tries to come into this soccer business directly," says Wagner. "And, for me, I think [my time off] was very important because in sports science and also biology I have parts that I can use now in my job. I can discuss with our physiotherapist and our doctor, with our athletic coach, I can discuss with him about the details that a head coach [normally] wouldn't be able to discuss, because he doesn't know science and biology. So I know everything that happens in your body when you run 1,000 meters. So this is an advantage for me."

Klopp moved to Dortmund in 2008, and set about rebuilding BVB into a European superclub. In 2011, the head coach position for Dortmund's second team, Dortmund II, opened up.

One guess whom Klopp called for the job.

"It's a difficult period at the club," is the first thing Wagner says after offering me a cup of coffee in Dortmund's break room, which has a little kitchen and tables that overlook the training fields at the club's training complex in Brackel, a small town just east of Dortmund's city center. The complex, built in 2006, consists of a half dozen fields centered around a rectangular, two-story building sided with dark wooden paneling and pillars painted BVB's famous electric yellow. The youth teams, second team, and professional squad all train there.

Wagner is fresh from a first team practice. Wearing a dark grey, yellow-highlighted track suit, he could be mistaken for a player himself if not for the grey in his short-cropped beard. He speaks fluid-if-heavily-accented English, smacking on gum and occasionally slipping in a German word if the English equivalent is close (e.g. two thousand elf rather than two thousand eleven).

"A difficult period" is a serious understatement. Just the day before, Dortmund had lost to Augsburg, which meant that, as of my meeting with Wagner, the club was in last place in the Bundesliga. (It has since won twice and is in 15th place out of 18 teams.)

Wagner, Klopp, and the rest of the Dortmund brain trust were trying to figure out how to get the team moving back up the league table. In a couple of hours, Klopp would hold a press conference just down the hall where he wouldn't field softballs about how he got the team to play so well—which is how the majority of his press conferences have gone over the last few seasons, with two Bundesliga titles and one trip to the Champions League final—but rather about whether he was still fit for the job.

That he and Klopp are so close is something Wagner says makes for a unique club structure, one that is a huge advantage for Dortmund. It means the philosophy put forward by Klopp with the first team is implemented seamlessly with the second team. But it goes beyond that. It's not uncommon for Klopp to join Wagner at his training sessions, and vice versa, and the two are constantly exchanging ideas. The first and second teams might play in different divisions, but at Dortmund they can seem almost like one big team, with the two head coaches side-by-side.

The two, however, are judged very differently. Wagner's job doesn't hinge on Bundesliga success. Dortmund II plays in the third division, but Wagner's job isn't tied to success there either. Not entirely, anyway.

Wagner describes his role at Dortmund like this: "First is to develop players, hopefully for our first team. The second thing is, yeah, to make the club richer, [to] develop players we can loan or sell to clubs. And the third thing is to hold the team in the third division."

As if that weren't enough to juggle, a recent rule change by the German Federation has removed a bit of Wagner's job security. The Federation has traditionally required professional clubs to field second teams—teams made up of players under the age of twenty three, with three over-age exceptions—but this summer, that requirement was lifted. Some clubs have done away with their second teams altogether, meaning their structure jumps from the U19 squad right to the first team.

"Each club has its own philosophy," says Wagner. "We are sure that the players can develop between 20 and [23]. We have enough examples of players who develop [during that period.] This is why we have this team, to hold these players in this club, give these players your philosophy, and try to develop these players. Other clubs think, 'Okay, maybe they develop better when we loan him to another club and we can bring him back.' But we are sure this is the right way."

And while BVB may no longer be required to keep Wagner's team around, his history of meeting all three of his stated goals, year after year, has made him indispensable.

Training players for the first team? Sure. Consider Erik Durm. In 2012, Durm was a promising forward on Mainz's second team. He scored enough goals in the regional division in which Mainz then played to capture Wagner's attention, and Durm signed for Dortmund II that summer. The next season, he played 28 times under Wagner, in the third division, but only scored twice. His low scoring wasn't due to a lack of skill in the face of tougher competition, it was because Wagner, citing Durm's strong positional awareness and speed, played him as a winger. That offseason, Klopp and Wagner discussed using him as an outside defender, and that's where he played with the first team during the 2013-2014 season. He did so well as a first team defender that he went to Brazil that summer with the national team.

In two years, thanks to Wagner, Dortmund II, and a little third division experimentation, Durm went from playing as a forward in a regional league to winning the World Cup as a defender.

As for Wagner's record selling and loaning players to other clubs, Terrence Boyd is one of many examples. Dortmund bought Boyd for an estimated 100,000 Euros in 2011 and sold him to Rapid Wienna one year later for twice that. Jonas Hofmann, a player who's been between Dortmund's two teams for a couple years, is another. Hofmann is in the midst of a successful loan at Mainz.

And Wagner's record in the league? In his first season at Dortmund, the team won promotion to the third division. It's always close, but he's avoided relegation ever since. This season, only three Bundesliga clubs have second teams in the third division, the highest in which second teams are eligible to play. The difference in quality between the nationwide third division and the regional fourth divisions is considerable. Wagner says that in regional league games, players like his only need to play at about 80 percent to win, which is the kind of effort that would get the team bounced from the third division. "It's a very hard fight to stay in this league, because we always play against very tough, old players who know this game very well," says Wagner.

The number of spectators in the third division also adds to the pressure, which is favorable for development: "The atmosphere is completely different. Normally, in the regionalliga, there are 500, sometimes 1,000 [spectators]. In the 3rd division, we play against Dynamo Dresden: 25,000. So from 25,000 [in the third division] to 50,000 [in the Bundesliga] is not so far away. So it is very important that we are in this league, in my opinion."

Wagner's record in the third division is all the more impressive when you consider that his team isn't just under threat of losing its star players, as are most third division teams; his team's best players are guaranteed to leave the club at the end of every season—and if they get promoted to the first team, sometimes they leave right in the middle. It's counterintuitive, but he wants them to leave. Finding new players and then developing them are the priorities, and the more players he successfully moves through, the better.

"We are able to search in the whole world to find them," he says. "To find them cheap, to bring them to our first team." It's his favorite part of the job.

If he wanted to, Wagner could easily move somewhere and manage a first team. Plenty of head coaches have moved into upper-league management after a spell in the third division. He has the credentials, but that's not the future he sees for himself. Not now, anyway.

"One special point for me is I never had a future plan," he says. "I always tried to do something that makes me satisfied, and this is what I do here. For me, at the moment, this job here makes me satisfied, 100 percent. So I am happy and everything is good."

In other words, Wagner has learned to embrace an unknowable future, and the inherent insecurity of soccer. He left teaching—perhaps the most secure career in Germany, a job from which it's almost impossible to get fired—for a job in what is probably the country's most insecure field. He's loving it.

"Of course," he continues, perhaps thinking back to last night's loss to Augsburg, "in the past, we always stayed on the sunny side. In the last year, we lost the sunny side. It's a little bit—"

He thinks for a beat. Chews his gum.

"—Yeah. Not so easy at the moment. But this is also our job, to accept this period and work on it."