Jonathan Klinsmann lunges sideways and jumps forward with his arms stretched out to seize the ball during one of his many gameday warm up routines. After picking himself up, he looks toward the bleachers’ upper levels, where he spots his father, Jürgen, sitting alone with his legs stretched out and his arms crossed. Seeing him up in the stands charges Jonathan up, electrifying his leaps to parry away incoming shots.
When Jonathan’s name rings through the loudspeakers before the opening whistle, members of the audience turn to each other and whisper about his last name. Once they confirm on their cellphones that Jonathan is the son of the German icon, one of international soccer’s most decorated players of the modern era and a World Cup champion, Jonathan finds himself at the center of the audience’s attention. Supporters then look around the stadium hoping to catch a glimpse of Jürgen. When they spot him, several flock in an attempt to take a picture with him and then closely huddle in their seats, ready to critique Jonathan’s every move.
But the bickering eventually stops. Jonathan’s aerial strengths, ability to read crosses early and his confidence with the ball at his feet have more than earned him his spot with the Bears. His scintillating efforts in one-on-one situations in the face of danger have helped him single-handedly keep Cal in several games throughout the season, proving to any doubters that he’s up to the task.
And Jonathan wouldn’t have liked it any other way. He doesn’t want or expect preferential treatment because of his lineage, and those who know him respect that. Jonathan wants his performances and only his performances to speak for him.
“There’s always going to be pressure,” says sophomore teammate Spencer Held. “There is always going to be outside people — just like trolls and stuff — saying things if (Jonathan) has a bad game and then shut up if he has a good game. Obviously, having a dad who was a professional and (was) a national team head coach, you’re always going to have that pressure from outside sources.”
Jonathan regularly deals with the burdens that come with being the son of one of soccer’s biggest legends, especially when he competes in other countries as a member of the USMNT’s youth development system. He recently dealt with that this year when he competed with the U-20 squad in England.
“For us, it didn’t really matter whether he was the son of Jürgen or Barack Obama or Winston Churchill.”
“I could feel my name being weighed down heavily on me (while I was there),” Jonathan says.
He tries to avoid succumbing to the criticism and high expectations by reminding himself that his ability, not his name, has helped his career progress. Jonathan doesn’t want his connection with Jürgen to define him on the pitch or the training ground.
Jürgen is the type of father who can give him advice on his academics or soccer career. Whether Jonathan follows through with Jürgen’s suggestions is his own choice. And Jonathan points out that Jürgen ultimately influenced his decision to attend college.
“(My dad) wanted me to come to college,” Jonathan says. “He wanted me to get an education, and I agreed with him. I don’t think that’s the wrong path at all. I’m loving college so far. You have to get your education, get smarter. Then the professional world will come later on.”
Jonathan has shown that he won’t use his father’s resources and connections to advance his goals in soccer. He is determined to pursue higher education in order to forge his own legacy.
For Jonathan, choosing UC Berkeley over any other university was an easy decision that can be traced back to his participation in one of Cal’s training camps during high school. He loved the experience and connected well with men’s soccer head coach Kevin Grimes, who took notice of Jonathan’s talents in goal.
“By the time he came to his third camp, he had really improved,” Grimes says. “He’d taken some big strides forward with his size and his great ball-handling skills as a big guy in the goal. We felt like he had great potential to be a top goalkeeper here at Cal. For us, it didn’t really matter whether he was the son of Jürgen or Barack Obama or Winston Churchill.”
But the thought of choosing the college route comes into question when it comes to developing for the type of high profile matches that can help an aspiring shot stopper etch their name in lore alongside icons like Oliver Kahn, Jorge Campos and Gianluigi Buffon. In the soccer world, particularly outside the United States, college soccer is considered to be very inefficient for a player’s development because of its condensed schedule, large rosters and emphasis on fitness over technique and tactical play.
The alternative — undergoing the academy route as a youngster and then being called up to the senior squad in a player’s late teens and early 20s — is deemed a more traditional and effective way of integrating into the professional level.
Grimes, however, says he believes that Jonathan made a good choice to opt for the college route, especially because goalkeepers can play well into their early 40s. Grimes added that developing in the college environment saves Jonathan from the harsh realities of going pro too soon and possibly not fulfilling his potential because of a lack of a mature mentality.
“It’s only the very few that it actually works out for: the Landon Donovans, the Jozy Altidores, the Michael Bradleys,” Grimes says. “But there are 10 times more stories for guys that it didn’t work out, and if they had to do it all over again, they would have gone to college. He made the right choice. He should be here.“
For now, Jonathan is focused on his college endeavors and helping Cal return to prominence in the NCAA Tournament. Although he hopes to play professional soccer one day, he’s in no hurry to take that major step. The shadow that a legendary player casts on their child can be immense, but Grimes says that Jonathan has the confidence and ability to thrive in his role as a goalkeeper. He’s also not aiming for instant success with a big club, because he’s keeping his expectations within a reasonable realm of attainability.
“I just want to get a good foundation, get to a good team and get a starting spot,” Jonathan says. “That’s all I’m thinking about right now. I don’t really know what country I’ll end up in or what team. Just getting that starting spot and getting experience and getting better in general is my goal.”
As a goalkeeper, Jonathan will continue to bear the brunt of criticism whenever his team concedes a score. Spectators will applaud him on a fine outing and jeer him on a forgettable showing.
But when Jonathan looks up toward the bleachers on match day and spots his father, he knows that he’ll be able to count on Jürgen to support him regardless of the result on the scoreboard. Jonathan will be at ease knowing that Jürgen will be able to take pride in watching his son build his own legacy.