By Connor Buestad | Connor@Section925.com
It may not get as much airtime on American televisions as the English Premier League, but there is little debate that Germany's first division Bundesliga is one of the very best soccer leagues on the planet. Bayern Munich, the league’s flagship club, is one of the most recognizable names in all of sports. Cities in Germany all but shut down for days at a time to support their beloved clubs, stadiums of over 40,000 seats are consistently full, and fans live and die with every result. The NFL in America might be a fair comparison, only the tradition and passion in Germany runs even deeper. As evidenced by the country’s 2014 World Cup title, soccer is everything in Germany, with the Bundesliga serving as a sacred training ground for international glory.
Growing up in Grafelfing, Germany, Florian Jungwirth knew this all too well. He, like countless boys his age shared the rough framework of the same “German soccer dream”: grow up to play professionally in the Bundesliga and one day star on the German National Team. Save for your Dirk Nowitzkis of the world, it was really that simple. Germany offered the best platform, it was up to the players to see if they could rise to the occasion.
Two years ago, at the age of 26, Jungwirth had all but brought his dreams to fruition. No, he was not a member of Germany’s 2014 World Cup title team, but as a teenager he was captain of the U-19 ad U-20 German national youth teams. And by his mid-twenties, he had earned a spot in the first division of the Bundesliga playing for SV Darmstadt 98. Much of the dream had become a reality and he was living it. Sold out stadiums of roaring crowds, intense media coverage, international recognition, the Bundesliga had it all. But then, out of nowhere, Jungwirth received a call from a former teammate. One that stuck with him.
“A couple years ago, while I was playing for Darmstadt in Germany, Gregg Berhalter gave me a call. We played professionally together for 1860 Munich. It was his last year in the Bundesliga (2nd Division) and my first. He had moved on to coach in the MLS with the Columbus Crew. He asked me, ‘would you ever think about coming to play in the MLS?’" explained Jungwirth. “And from that day on I started really following the league. Now here I am.”
Berhalter, an American who played his soccer at the University of North Carolina, made 44 appearances for the U.S. National Team, as well as stints in various professional leagues around the world. Now as a coach in the MLS, he knew reaching out to Europe for players would be a smart way to improve his new team, as well as the league in general. Fortunately, Jungwirth was there on the other end to listen.
With the MLS seed planted, Jungwirth and his wife began to keep a close eye on the American league and what it could potentially offer. Cities in California were especially quick to catch the Jungwirths’ eyes. That’s why when new Quakes' general manager Jesse Fioranelli called with a handsome contract offer to play Major League Soccer in the Bay Area, Jungwith couldn’t refuse. “I think my wife would have divorced me if I said no,” Jungwirth reflects with a smile. “45 minutes from the sea, 45 minutes from the mountains, it’s hard to say no to the Bay Area. Playing for the MLS and living in California, for me, it’s the whole package. It was an interesting vision of Jesse. He wanted to create a new idea for the club with a new style of play and he wanted me to be a big part of it. It was hard to say no to that.”
Starting at center back for all 14 Eathquakes games this season, the 5’11”, 174lb Jungwith has made an immediate impact with his new MLS club. Even on the backline, Jungwirth has already recorded two goals and two assists on the young season, leading to a nomination for July’s MLS All-Star Game, as well as talk regarding the MLS newcomer of the year award and the defensive player of the year.
Perhaps Jungwirth’s largest contribution to the Quakes thus far has been his stability on San Jose’s backline. Originally slated to play in the central midfield, Jungwirth was thrust into the center back position after Harold Cummings (a Panama National Team veteran) was lost for the season due to injury. Despite the new role, Jungwirth has played with great effectiveness from Game one. #23 is constantly flying around the pitch making plays, winning 50/50 balls, slide tackling forwards, organizing the defense, orchestrating and building up the offensive attack. Watching him play for just 10 minutes lets you know his feel for the game, his technical skill, and his tactical decision making are all at a premier level. Overall, he’s quickly turned into the impact player that Quakes management were hoping for when they signed him away from the Bundesliga over the winter.
“When I first came to the Earthquakes, Jesse (Fioranelli) wanted me to be a leader. Some of my teammates could have taken that the wrong way, coming from Europe and talking from the first day, but I simply want to help the team. I’m a natural talker on the field and my position requires that. Fortunately, my team has responded well to me and we’ve been successful.”
Of course, Florian’s immediate impact on the Quakes should come as little surprise to those familiar with international soccer and the extremely high level being played in Germany. “Defending World Cup champions” speaks for itself, but the country has built up a system of player development that is second to none across the globe. Products of Germany’s system have an understanding of the tactical side of soccer that few others share. It produces players that know exactly what to do with the ball on seemingly every touch, with efficiency holding more value than flair. From a very young age, German youth are taught the correct way to play, feeding like a funnel all the way up to Germany’s national team. The art of “The Beautiful Game” will never be boiled down into a science, but the Germans might come closer than anyone to doing so.
From the age of 11, Jungwirth was taught the game in a German soccer academy dedicated to player development. It was not a soccer lab or a factory, but then again, German soccer academies aren’t all that different. Places where future World Cup and Bundesliga stars are engineered just like the latest Mercedes Benz model. For six years (U-16 to U-20) Jungwirth starred on Germany’s youth national team, competing internationally against the best players in the world in his age bracket. For the U-19 team, Jungwirth served as the team captain of the side who won the UEFA European U-19 Championship, beating Italy in the final in the Czech Republic.
When asked about the experience of leading such successful teams in international play at that age, Jungwirth smiles and shrugs it off as no big deal. “The German National Team is at a much different level than something like under-20’s. That is a huge step,” he explains.
Despite not getting the call from the world’s best soccer team, Jungwirth parlayed his success as a junior into a lucrative pro career. Nothing was given to the gritty player, but Jungwirth found a way to latch on with Darmstadt who was at that time in Bundesliga’s second division. But thanks in large part to Jungwirth’s performance, Darmstadt enjoyed one of its best seasons in years, which earned them a spot up in Bundesliga’s fabled first division.
“We were the smallest team in the second division,” explains Jungwirth. “No one was expecting us to do anything. Experts actually thought we were going to drop down to the third division that year. But we ended up going on a 16-game winning streak and we made it into the first division.”
Once there, Jungwirth enjoyed a year and a half playing in Germany’s top league, further developing his game against the world’s best, all with an eye on his own American dream. Now that he’s made the leap of faith to play American soccer in the prime of career, he hasn’t looked back. So far, it has worked out not only on an individual level, but also for the San Jose Earthquakes themselves as the team is in a good position to get back to the MLS playoffs for the first time in five years. Jungwirth doesn’t take this playoff opportunity for granted, as his days in Germany found him stuck behind NBA style super-teams like Bayern Munich. “In Germany, you can play like you want, but if you are on a small team, you don’t have a real chance against a team like Bayern Munich, but here in the MLS, so many different teams have a chance to win a title. I like that about this league.”
Unlike David Beckham who came over from Real Madrid to play out the twilight of his career with the L.A. Galaxy or Barcelona’s David Villa who is currently doing the same with New York City FC of the MLS, Jungwirth is still very much in the prime of his career. By no means is this some sort of marketing play by Jungwirth to spread his personal brand in an American city while playing some soccer on the side. “Flo,” as his teammates call him, is here to win a professional soccer championship. Something that wasn’t going to be possible across the pond in Europe.
Without a doubt, the Bay Area’s own Chris Wondolowski still remains the face of the Earthquakes’ franchise, responsible for the lion’s share of the club’s flashiest goals. But in his first season, Jungwirth is quickly showing San Jose faithful why he could be best described as the Quakes’ trusted engineer. Always working, always improving, always producing, but never breaking.