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 can’t do it. Their country might not truly care unless they do.
So for the United States men’s soccer team, which arrived in Sao Paulo to begin final preparations for the World Cup, the stakes are oddly ambiguous.
It’s 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 aren’t great.
But there’s also a psychological twist, as their coach’s candid commentary rings in their ears.
Jurgen Klinsmann, a former star forward and coach for Germany’s national team, was hired by U.S. Soccer officials in 2011 to try, try again to get the men’s 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, who’ll 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 don’t think we are expected to win the World Cup. But definitely we want to go far. We want to do well.”
Well, say what you will about that approach, and lots of folks certainly have. (ESPN’s 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, it’s not the message that matters. It’s the results.
“We believe,” said Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain who’ll be making his third World Cup appearance in Brazil. “It doesn’t matter what’s 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, they’ll likely need some help in the group stage, particularly from Klinsmann’s own countrymen. But first they’ll 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 haven’t 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.
They’ll 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 would’ve 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 Donovan’s 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, Klinsmann’s 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.
It’s 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. It’s 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 team’s schedule this spring — wins in all three matches — offered some hopeful signs for Brazil. Particularly last weekend’s 2-1 victory over Nigeria, a squad similar to the one it’ll 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 hadn’t scored for club or country in 27 games dating to December, scored both goals.
“Obviously, it’s 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.