June 11, 2014 at 1:00 am

John Niyo

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann tempers expectations, but he's building a winner

Jurgen Klinsmann, who has revamped the look of the U.S. national soccer team, has his sights set on 2018 World Cup success. (Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images)

Their coach says they cant do it. Their country might not truly care unless they do.

So for the United States mens soccer team, which arrived in Sao Paulo to begin final preparations for the World Cup, the stakes are oddly ambiguous.

Its win or go home, as always. And given their draw placed in the Group of Death to start this quadrennial 32-nation tournament most expect the Americans will be headed home sooner rather than later.

The U.S. has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup once since World War II an improbable run in South Korea in 2002. And paired with traditional European powers Germany and Portugal, as well Ghana, the country that has eliminated the U.S. from the last two World Cups, the chances to advance beyond the group stage arent great.

But theres also a psychological twist, as their coachs candid commentary rings in their ears.

Jurgen Klinsmann, a former star forward and coach for Germanys national team, was hired by U.S. Soccer officials in 2011 to try, try again to get the mens national team over the hump.

An uncompromising perfectionist, Klinsmann carries both credibility and clout, and not just because of his resume he won a World Cup title as a player in 1990, and coached Germany to a surprising third-place finish in 2006. Klinsmann, wholl turn 50 next month and has called California home for more than 15 years, also has a contract that runs through the 2018 World Cup.

Which might explain why he felt comfortable telling the New York Times months ago, We cannot win this World Cup because we are not at that level yet. Realistically, it is not possible. And why he reiterated that point as un-American as it might sound recently at a news conference in New York comparing his approach with this U.S. team to the German sides he led.

Obviously, the expectation in the long end are a little bit different because Germany is expected to win the World Cup, Klinsmann explained. I dont think we are expected to win the World Cup. But definitely we want to go far. We want to do well.

'We believe'

Well, say what you will about that approach, and lots of folks certainly have. (ESPNs Michael Wilbon punctuated an on-air rant last week by saying, Get the hell out. Get out of America.) But whether you view it as fatalistic or pragmatic, or both, its not the message that matters. Its the results.

We believe, said Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain wholl be making his third World Cup appearance in Brazil. It doesnt matter whats on paper, what people say. We know what we have inside this locker room and what we believe and that together we can do something great, do something special.

To do that, theyll likely need some help in the group stage, particularly from Klinsmanns own countrymen. But first theyll need to help themselves, and the U.S. coach has made no secret of that, either.

The first game, Ghana, we have to beat them, Klinsmann said, well aware the Americans havent in their last two trips, including a 2-1 loss to the Black Stars in extra time that sent the U.S. packing in 2010.

Theyll have to beat them with a younger team, too. Only five players on the 23-man roster boast World Cup experience, and the most notable omission was that of veteran Landon Donovan, the most decorated player in U.S. soccer history.

He and Klinsmann had their clashes, and Donovan probably wouldve been a reserve on this squad if selected. But by leaving the 32-year-old Donovan home, the coach left himself open for criticism if his team comes up empty in Brazil.

It was Donovans last-gasp strike against Algeria that pushed the U.S. into the knockout round four years ago, setting off wild celebrations back home. And that was just one of a handful of goals Donovan scored in World Cup play, while the team that headed to Brazil without him can claim just three.

'Lot of confidence'

Again, Klinsmanns job security might play a role here, giving the nod to youth and talent, perhaps over experience at a few positions as he tries to retrofit the entire U.S. soccer pipeline.

Its a system that still has too many top players wash out in college or see their professional growth stunted playing stateside in Major League Soccer rather than in the more competitive European leagues. Its also a system that failed to qualify its under-23 team for two of the last three Olympic Games.

Still, the results from the U.S. national teams schedule this spring wins in all three matches offered some hopeful signs for Brazil. Particularly last weekends 2-1 victory over Nigeria, a squad similar to the one itll face in the World Cup opener. The Americans, led by Michael Bradley, controlled the midfield, their shaky back line held its own, and Jozy Altidore, who hadnt scored for club or country in 27 games dating to December, scored both goals.

Obviously, its a wonderful message to see that Jozy put the thing in the net, Klinsmann said.

It gives him a big smile at the right time now. It will give him a lot of confidence.

They could use a bit of that now, to be sure, as they set out to do the impossible. Or at least something close to it.