Skip to content

No illusions: Unconventional Klinsmann instills confidence in United States

Jun 21, 2014, 3:23 PM EDT

So it has been, what, a week since we were calling the United States World Cup group (cue scary music, woman shrieking, young child with glowing eyes) the “GROUP OF DEATH.” In retrospect, that might have been a bit of an overstatement. “Group of Moderate Pain” might have been more apt. Or maybe “Group of Pretty Severe Heartburn.” Or “Kind of Tough Group.”

From the start, we probably should have known that the only team in the U.S. group with a real and viable chance of winning the World Cup was Germany. There’s no question about Germany’s awesomeness, which has already been on display. The others? Ghana has been a thorn in the U.S. side in recent World Cups, but come on, they are ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings.

Portugal is ranked very high in the World Rankings, but the most intense soccer fans I know seemed to think of them as somewhat insubstantial – a team that relies too much on the singular greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo. With Ronaldo possibly hurt (and possibly not; soccer loves its mysteries) and with the memory of the 4-0 drubbing by Germany fresh in the mind, Portugal has become a 40-to-1 long shot to win it all.

And that leaves the United States – a team very few fans around the world take seriously. Like I say – tough group. But Group of Death? This is a bit like some of the later U.S. Olympic basketball teams still trying to call themselves “Dream Teams.”

*If there is a GROUP OF DEATH out there it probably should be Group D – D for Death – with stunning Costa Rica, Luis Suarez’ inspired Uruguay, perennial power Italy and poor Mother England.

The U.S. has a very real chance to advance with a good performance against Portugal on Sunday – Ronaldo’s health is in question, superb defender Pepe is out – and you can’t help but wonder if all of this is playing out along the strange, serpentine path set out in the mind of the United States’ quirky and outspoken coach, Jürgen Klinsmann.

He’s a fascinating character in every way. You probably know his life story: Klinsmann apprenticed as a baker – his parents owned a bakery famous for its pretzels – but he was a soccer prodigy. According to a superb story Alex Wolff wrote about him in Sports Illustrated before the 1994 World Cup, Klinsmann once scored 16 goals in a youth soccer game. He was a breathtaking scorer his entire career – he became the first man to score three goals or more in three consecutive World Cups. He also was so famous for taking dives that he won England’s heart by taking fake dives after scoring goals when playing in the Premier League.

And he was an iconoclast off the field. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle. He traveled to places like South Africa to learn about the situation there. Wolff reported that he would sometimes sing to himself the German protest song “All People Will Be Brothers” while the German national anthem played before matches. There was something deeper always going on with him.

This was true too when he became coach of the German team. The team was pretty much a wreck going into the 2006 World Cup, and nobody was happy with Klinsmann. The defense was something of a shambles and many thought Klinsmann – always the most aggressive of offensive players – didn’t particularly care about defense. The Sun newspaper’s official 2006 World Cup song was “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Jürgen Klinsmann?” But the team made it all the way to the semifinal, losing to eventual champion Italy. And cynics had to grudgingly concede that Klinsmann turned out to be good at this too.

[ MORE: Three areas of focus for the U.S. against Portugal ]
[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]

Ever since he took over the U.S. team – the 35th coach in United States soccer team history – he has been shockingly blunt about his mission to make U.S. soccer unlike U.S. soccer. For instance, he cut Landon Donovan – the most famous and perhaps best soccer player in American history – creating a stir. His explanation for cutting Donovan at the time seemed pretty weak; he simply said that others were in better form. But the REAL explanation emerged in his interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times Magazine … with Kobe Bryant being collateral damage.

“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann said, referring to stars becoming bigger than logic. “Kobe Bryant, for example – why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

The key sentence in there, I think, is not the Bryant stuff but the line: “This always happens in America.” Klinsmann loves America, has been fascinated with our country since he was young. But there are American qualities that make no sense to him, especially when it comes to soccer. He thinks Donovan is finished as a world-class player. He thinks this is pretty obvious. And he thinks Americans are too sentimental about such matters of mortality.

He also thinks we Americans can be unrealistic – and so he has said point blank, on numerous occasions, that this team can’t win the World Cup. He has said it about 50 different ways. “We are not at the level yet,” he told the Times. And then: “Basically, it’s not possible.”

Think of another coach in any American sport would ever say anything is “not possible.”

But this is Klinsmann and it is part of his effort to make U.S. soccer bend to his will. He coaches a soccer team that has had little-to-no international success and yet recently had a youth program called “Project 2010” because the organizers honestly believed the U.S. would win the World Cup by 2010. He coaches in a country where we never stop believing in American possibility, and we never quite forget that we got to the moon first.

[ MORE: ProSoccerTalk covers all-things USMNT at the 2014 World Cup ]
[ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014 World Cup central  |  All-Access ]

So, he has stripped away all illusions. The past is the past. The team isn’t good enough. The U.S. has almost no chance to survive the GROUP OF DEATH. He did not come up with the last one, but I’m sure it suited his purposes.

Then, Monday, Clint Dempsey scored that super-quick goal against Ghana. The U.S. was promptly outplayed for 80-plus minutes. The game was ugly for the U.S. – the team does not often play beautiful soccer, anyway, but against Ghana there were stretches where it seemed they could not complete two passes in a row. Ghana dominated the ball and threatened again and again. But somehow the U.S. fought off the challenges for much longer than seemed possible. And after Ghana did score the equalizer, the U.S. found a way to get a corner kick, and then the ball found the head of John Brooks, who put away the thrilling game-winner.

Now, the U.S. plays a wounded and demoralized Portugal team – with rumors about Ronaldo’s health buzzing – and with a win they are basically through the Group of Death. With a draw, they still have an excellent chance of getting through. This is a much better position than anyone could have possibly expected, and everyone is getting really excited.

But perhaps this sort of hope is precisely the thing Klinsmann has railed again. Portugal has perhaps the best player on earth in Ronaldo, who they insist is 100 percent healthy. Portugal has had quite a bit of success the last 10 years including a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and a semifinal at Euro 2012. Portugal has a much richer soccer history than the U.S. Klinsmann, no doubt, wants everyone to understand that the U.S. has little chance of …

“We believe we can beat them,” Klinsmann told reporters this week.

Wait. What?

“We have very good players in this squad, “ he said, “and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, ‘we are here and we want to beat you and get into the next round.”

“It can’t get any better,” he said.

Well, like I say: You never know with Jürgen Klinsmann.

Latest Posts
  1. WATCH: The 2 Robbies discuss which Premier League teams will be relegated

    Apr 25, 2015, 6:59 PM EDT

    Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe, The 2 Robbies Robbie Earle & Robbie Mustoe, The 2 Robbies

    With four teams separated by two points for the final relegation place, it’s becoming an absolute dogfight. The 2 Robbies break it down.

  2. Pearson: “It doesn’t matter how you win games,” as Leicester inch closer to safety

    Apr 25, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT

    Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC Nigel Pearson, Leicester City FC

    When in a relegation dogfight, win any way you can. That’s the message from Nigel Pearson, and that’s what Leicester City have done.

  3. Pellegrini: Victory over Aston Villa “one of our worst games of the season”

    Apr 25, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT

    Manuel Pellegrini, Manchester City FC Getty Images

    Play poorly and win, or play well and lose? You can’t always have it both ways, which benefitted Man City on Saturday.

  4. Sherwood: Aston Villa “controlled the game” against Manchester City

    Apr 25, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    Tim Sherwood, Aston Villa FC Getty Images

    Sherwood’s men were certainly hard done by away to Manchester City. It’s hard not to agree with the Villa boss.

  5. Promotion Watch: Watford officially promoted; disaster for Middlesbrough

    Apr 25, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT

    Fulham v Middlesbrough - Sky Bet Championship Getty Images

    With Watford officially promoted, who’s next? (Hint: It won’t be Boro.)

  6. Manchester City 3-2 Aston Villa: Stunning finish sees City hold on after Guzan’s blunder

    Apr 25, 2015, 2:35 PM EDT

    Manchester City v Aston Villa - Premier League Getty Images

    Citizens survive second half Villa comeback to move up to second, cement spot in top four.

  7. Bundesliga wrap: Schweinsteiger strikes late for Bayern, Hamburg earns huge win

    Apr 25, 2015, 2:32 PM EDT

    Germany Soccer Bundesliga AP

    Three of four “bottom five” clubs who played on Saturday picked up a point, including one side scooping up a massive three points to leap off the bottom of the table.

  8. VIDEO: Watch Lionel Messi score 50th goal of season, 401st for Barcelona

    Apr 25, 2015, 2:01 PM EDT

    RCD Espanyol v FC Barcelona - La Liga Getty Images

    Messi now has at least 50 goals in four seasons during his career.

  9. Watch Watford’s team bus learn they’ve been promoted to the Premier League (video)

    Apr 25, 2015, 1:48 PM EDT

    cD05ODdlNmNhY2MwMjRlZWQzNTJhM2ViYTQ1Y2VlY2YzOCZnPTUwYWUwMzI2NGZiNGMxMjhmOGYwY2I2NmVmY2Q0MmJm Getty Images

    Mexico national teamer Miguel Layun posted this video on Twitter, as the club learns its been promoted and the bus goes absolutely bonkers.

  10. VIDEO: Guzan’s colossal error gifts Aguero and Man City an easy 1-0 lead

    Apr 25, 2015, 1:18 PM EDT

    Stoke City v Aston Villa - Premier League Getty Images

    Aguero? He doesn’t miss from there, and the USMNT keeper was left with his head in his hands. It’s 1-0 City at half.

  11. Newcastle United 2-3 Swansea City: Swans roll, Magpies haven’t won since February

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:49 PM EDT

    Britain Soccer Premier League AP

    Swans found goals from Nelson Olivera, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Jack Cork to build a 3-1 lead before Siem de Jong netted late.

  12. Back in the big time: Watford promoted to the Premier League

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:46 PM EDT

    Brighton & Hove Albion v Watford - Sky Bet Championship Getty Images

    The Hornets are back in the PL for just the third time in their history.

  13. Watch Live: Manchester City vs. Aston Villa (Lineups and Live Stream)

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:17 PM EDT

    Aguero Getty Images

    Can the Citizens cement their top four spot? Watch live, here.

  14. Stoke City 1-1 Sunderland: Black Cats enter drop zone despite point

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:14 PM EDT

    Britain Soccer Premier League AP

    USMNT defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron left the game in the 87th minute with an injury.

  15. Crystal Palace 0-2 Hull City: N’Doye’s double hands Tigers huge win

    Apr 25, 2015, 12:04 PM EDT

    Crystal Palace v Hull City - Premier League Getty Images

    Tigers give themselves breathing space from the bottom three with much-needed win.

  16. Burnley 0-1 Leicester City: Foxes move out of drop zone, send Clarets bottom!

    Apr 25, 2015, 11:58 AM EDT

    Burnley v Leicester City - Premier League Getty Images

    Nigel Pearson was fired last month, or so we were led to believe. Now his Foxes have escaped the drop zone with a dramatic win at Turf Moor.

Featured video

Should Chelsea be more entertaining?