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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.

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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.

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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.

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