Jonathan Klinsmann remembers being thrilled, if a little uneasy, when Hertha Berlin coach Pal Dardai tapped him on the shoulder and told him he would be playing his first professional game at Olympic Stadium.
So he called his dad, Jurgen, who played in that stadium, coached in that stadium and won a World Cup with the German national team, for advice in calming his nerves
“It was a couple of days before the game and you start thinking, and start overthinking,” the younger Klinsmann remembered. “I didn’t know what to think. So I called my dad. After that I was good, I was fine.“
With his mind at ease the younger Klinsmann made a brilliant save on a late penalty kick in his debut, preserving a 1-1 tie with Swedish club Ostersunds in a Europa League game and briefly becoming the toast of the town in the German capital.
And making his father proud as well.
“Over time Jonathan will learn how to channel nervousness into extra positive energy once the game gets going,” said the elder Klinsmann, a former U.S. national team coach who watched his son’s first game on TV from Southern California. “By nature he’s a gamer. Mastering his professional debut in a Europa League game is really special.”
It was an auspicious start for Hertha Berlin’s third-choice keeper who, until then, was best known as Jurgen’s son. But on that dark, cold Dec. 7 night he took at least a tentative step away from his father’s long shadow, first with a fantastic fingertip save in the first half, then with a lunge to his left to stop Brwa Nouri’s well-placed penalty kick in the 87th minute.
“It was a crazy feeling, definitely,” he said. “We scouted the penalty-takers before the game and I was debating in my mind where I was going to go. Right before he took the penalty, I decided where I was going because of the scouting.”
It proved to be the right decision. But it wasn’t the only time Klinsmann has found himself in the right place at the right time at Hertha.
He played six games in his first four months with the club’s junior team this fall, which drew the attention of Dardai. So when the coach chose to rest regular keeper Rune Jarstein while backup Thomas Kraft was sidelined by illness, he had no reservations about starting Klinsmann, just 20.
“I can remember walking out onto the field for my professional debut and that’s something I won’t ever forget,” he said. “Just the energy in the stadium was so incredible. Getting a save in the first half was really important for me and, obviously, the penalty save is something I’ll always remember as well.”
Something his father, who coached Germany in the 2006 World Cup quarterfinals in the same stadium, will always remember as well.
“You’re naturally nervous as a parent when your son gets the chance to perform in such a special occasion,” said the elder Klinsmann, who made his living scoring goals, not stopping them.
Although he was born in Munich and is a dual national, Jonathan Klinsmann moved to Orange County when he was just a year old so Germany is a foreign country to him. And adjusting to winter in Germany, where the sun can disappear for weeks under dark clouds and freezing rain, hasn’t been easy.
But those were obstacles he was willing to confront when he decided to leave UC Berkeley after two seasons.
“I wanted to challenge myself,” said Klinsmann, who started on a U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals of last spring’s U-20 World Cup, success that could set him on course for a call-up to the U.S. senior national team. That’s the team his father coached for five years before being sacked 13 months ago after back-to-back losses in World Cup qualifying.
“I have confidence in myself to become a really good player, a really great player,” the younger Klinsmann continued. “After the U-20 World Cup, I saw myself taking the next step. And obviously the Bundesliga is a big step.”
So weeks after the World Cup, Klinsmann had a summer try-out with Hertha that went so well the club rushed to sign him even before the 10-day audition was finished. At the time team officials said privately they could hardly believe their good fortune to uncover such a gem overlooked by other European clubs.
“It’s tough and it’s always going to be tough,” said Klinsmann, who lives in a small apartment in the bustling Mitte section of the German capital, not far from where the Berlin Wall stood in what was formerly East Berlin. “But I’m really happy that I made that step.”
Language has proved to be another challenge.
“It wasn’t very good at first,” he said of his German. “I could do conversations and talk to people. But it’s definitely better now. Just being submersed in the culture has helped a lot.”
His father is learning a new language too, studying Spanish while plotting his next move, one he hopes will land him with another national team. Rumors earlier this fall had him expressing interest in the Australian team, which has qualified for next summer’s World Cup in Russia — rumors he declined to address.
But he made it clear he’s looking for work.
“I would be comfortable now coach[ing] a Spanish-language team,” he admitted. “I just want to be prepared for the next adventure. Who knows what will happen in the future?”