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. United States women overcame growing pains to peak when it mattered

    Jul 6, 2015, 3:06 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    The U.S. women always said they would peak at the right moment, and they did exactly that.

  2. Set pieces prove to be Japan’s undoing in Women’s World Cup final loss

    Jul 6, 2015, 2:41 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Japan came out shockingly flat in the World Cup final, conceding four goals in 16 minutes.

  3. Carli Lloyd proves she’s the Women’s World Cup hero she always knew she would be

    Jul 6, 2015, 1:54 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Carli Lloyd said she wanted to be the best in the world. On Sunday, she proved it.

  4. PHOTOS: Celebration abundant on social media following U.S. World Cup win

    Jul 6, 2015, 12:31 AM EDT

    Abby Wambach, USWNT — 2015 Women's World Cup Getty Images

    Take a look at the aftermath of the United States’ World Cup win over Japan.

  5. Mission accomplished: Abby Wambach gets her World Cup title

    Jul 6, 2015, 12:03 AM EDT

    Getty Images Getty Images

    Abby Wambach longed for a World Cup title for over a decade. On Sunday, she finally lifted the trophy.

  6. Nani relishing “new opportunity” with move to Turkish club Fenerbahce

    Jul 5, 2015, 11:10 PM EDT

    FBL-POR-LIGA-SPORTING-RIO AVE Getty Images

    Former Manchester United midfielder Nani is prepared for a fresh start in Turkey.

  7. United States wins third Women’s World Cup title, beats Japan on record-smashing day

    Jul 5, 2015, 8:51 PM EDT

    VANCOUVER, BC - JULY 05:  Carli Lloyd #10 of the United States celebrates scoring the opening goal against Japan in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 Final at BC Place Stadium on July 5, 2015 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Carli Lloyd’s hat trick and the United States’ win smashed just about every record in a huge win over Japan in the Women’s World Cup final.

  8. VIDEO: Lloyd seals amazing 16 minute hat trick with wonder goal from halfway

    Jul 5, 2015, 7:45 PM EDT

    Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, Megan Rapinoe Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday, Megan Rapinoe

    Watch Lloyd score three times, as U.S. raced into a 4-0 lead inside the first 20 minutes.

  9. Inter Milan call out Fiorentina regarding Mohamed Salah’s transfer controversy

    Jul 5, 2015, 7:16 PM EDT

    Mohamed Salah has scored three times in his first four matches since moving to Fiorentina from Chelsea. AP

    Inter Milan released a statement defending itself as Fiorentina vice president Paolo Panerai criticized his rival in the midst of Mohamed Salah’s transfer situation.

  10. WATCH LIVE: U.S. take on Japan in Women’s World Cup final

    Jul 5, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT

    Abby Wambach, USWNT Abby Wambach, USWNT

    Watch the Women’s World Cup final live online. Kickoff at 7 p.m. ET.

  11. Hamburger SV sign defender Emir Spahic after Bayer Leverkusen terminated his contract

    Jul 5, 2015, 4:45 PM EDT

    Unknown Getty Images

    After having his contract terminated for violence with match security, Emir Spahic will play for Hamburger SV next season.

  12. Barcelona midfielder Andres Iniesta: Real Madrid won’t let Sergio Ramos leave

    Jul 5, 2015, 4:03 PM EDT

    Sergio+Ramos+Andres+Iniesta+15JUGlew7q5m Getty Images

    Despite Sergio Ramos’ transfer being heavily linked to Manchester United, rival Andres Iniesta believes the defender is going nowhere.

  13. Real Madrid and Brazil legend Roberto Carlos named manager of Delhi Dynamos

    Jul 5, 2015, 3:10 PM EDT

    Roberto Carlos Getty Images

    The Indian Super League continues to bring in the big names.

  14. Stephen Keshi sacked as Nigerian national team coach

    Jul 5, 2015, 2:22 PM EDT

    FBL-AFR-2015-NGR-SUD Getty Images

    After three stints managing the Super Eagles, Stephen Keshi is out once again.

  15. Women’s World Cup final tactics: Will United States get better of Japan?

    Jul 5, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT

    US midfielder Megan Rapinoe listens to teammates at a press conference in Vancouver on July 3, 2015, two days before the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup final against Japan.   AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The U.S. defense has been unbreakable, and Japan loves to keep the ball. Something has to give in the final.

  16. Fiji smashes Micronesia 38-0…Yes, 38-0

    Jul 5, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT

    Fiji v Uzbekistan: Group F - FIFA U-20 World Cup New Zealand 2015 Getty Images

    After making some tactical changes at the break, Micronesia held Fiji to just 17 second half goals.

  17. Javier Mascherano calls Argentina’s Copa America loss “torture”

    Jul 5, 2015, 12:21 PM EDT

    FBL-COPAM2015-ARG-CHI Getty Images

    After another brutal loss in a major tournament final, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano couldn’t explain what went wrong.

Featured video

PST Extra: Done deals & transfer gossip