Jun 21, 2014, 3:23 PM EST
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Feb 26, 2015, 5:05 PM EST
The Premier League’s nightmare week in European competition continued on Thursday.
Feb 26, 2015, 3:44 PM EST
It took kicks to settle the UEFA Europa League tie between Besiktas and Liverpool after both clubs won 1-0 home legs.
Feb 26, 2015, 2:59 PM EST
The shots may’ve been even, but Spurs had 2/3 possession for much of the night.
Feb 26, 2015, 2:36 PM EST
Cummings’ manager is backing him up, too, and the Scotland U-19 forward has 11 goals in 23 matches for Hibs this season.
Feb 26, 2015, 1:46 PM EST
If you believe the words from Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen on local radio last night, you probably want to prepare for a work stoppage in MLS.
Feb 26, 2015, 12:42 PM EST
It had to be a terrifying incident for the team, let alone the player.
Feb 26, 2015, 11:50 AM EST
Kickoff is at 8pm ET, with the return leg in DC on Wednesday.
Feb 26, 2015, 11:05 AM EST
Koeman, like many of us, thinks it’s a little wild to keep talking about 2022 in 2015.
Feb 26, 2015, 10:16 AM EST
Gone for now is the trademark ponytail due to the cancer battle, but Jonas’ spirit has been and will be a big boost for the Magpies.
Feb 26, 2015, 9:25 AM EST
Dunkin’ Donuts has issued an apology after their doctoring of the Liverpool logo offended some fans.
Feb 26, 2015, 8:39 AM EST
Scholes, 40, would be a high-profile move for the Latics, and Oldham says it won’t rush to hire a replacement.
Feb 26, 2015, 7:48 AM EST
He was without a team for a while, exploring other European clubs before deciding to return to New England.
Feb 25, 2015, 11:00 PM EST
The midfielder takes a quick dribble and lashes a left-footed shot that pings off the inside of the net and rockets around the back.
Feb 25, 2015, 10:11 PM EST
The lanky 24-year-old goalkeeper has a contract that runs through the 2016 season and has been a massive part of United’s rise up the table.
Feb 25, 2015, 9:20 PM EST
Rodgers asks a seemingly reasonable question: Why two days turnaround to face a City team that played on Tuesday?
Feb 25, 2015, 8:31 PM EST
Premier League teams’ Europa League fortunes range from comfortable to troubled with Everton, Spurs and Liverpool mixing it up on Thursday.
Feb 25, 2015, 7:26 PM EST
While Monaco went into the Emirates Stadium and punished hosts Arsenal, Bayer Leverkusen eeked out a victory against stingy Atletico Madrid.
WATCH: This Calhanoglu beauty is what it took Bayer Leverkusen to break Atletico Madrid’s shutout streak
Feb 25, 2015, 6:43 PM EST
A gorgeous strike from Turkey’s 21-year-old attacker lifted Bayer Leverkusen to a 1-0 lead in its UEFA Champions League tie with Atletico Madrid.
Feb 25, 2015, 5:54 PM EST
Monaco has Arsenal on the UEFA Champions League ropes, and the Gunners could easily bow out in its fifth-straight Round of 16.
Feb 25, 2015, 5:07 PM EST
You know the former Spurs man knows what he’s doing, having a dig at the North London rivals after a 3-1 win in the UEFA Champions League.
- Europa League roundup: Tottenham, Liverpool out; Everton, La Liga sides advance 0
- Besiktas 1-0 (1-1) Liverpool: Arslan makes, Lovren misses final PK as Reds go out of Europe 0
- Fiorentina ousts Tottenham from the Europa League with 2-0 win at the Stadio Artemio Franchi 1
- Strike season? Real Salt Lake owner calls free agency “go nowhere conversation” 2
- Liverpool’s Rodgers disturbed at Premier League scheduling around Europa League 5
- Europa League preview: Second legs prompt excitement (and extra security) 0