Jurgen Klinsmann was correct in December, although his brutally honest assessment seemed all wrong coming from a coach:
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann told the New York Times Magazine in an interview that was published in June. “For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible.”
Critics howled and accused him of being un-American.
They were right, because such frankness is virtually nonexistent. It is considered tantamount to quitting before the competition begins.
Klinsmann wasn’t conceding anything, however, except the obvious fact that the United States isn’t close to elite status in international soccer. Escaping the treacherous Group of Death, with Germany, Portugal and Ghana as obstacles, would be a difficult feat.
Advancing through the knockout stage to reach the World Cup final would be close to impossible.
I never understood the big deal about Klinsmann’s comment. It seemed like the perfect combination of tampering public expectations and challenging the team to reach deeper. Coaches always do the latter in private, during practices and meetings, but they usually refuse to let unfiltered truth seep out during interviews.
Consider Major League Baseball, where “hope springs eternal” every February as training camps open. The Houston Astros lost more games than any other team last season. While I haven’t scoured every quote from manager Bo Porter, I would be floored if he said winning the World Series this year is impossible.
In the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks lost eight of every 10 games they played last season. They clearly are not at the championship-level yet. But good luck getting Larry Drew (or ego-tripping, perhaps-soon-to-be Milwaukee coach Jason Kidd) to flat-out admit the Bucks’ chances of winning the title are unrealistic.
I’ll give NFL coaches a pass. It’s the easiest league to go from worst to first – or at least worst to playoffs. Losing teams get the easiest schedules and vice versa, creating more parity and turnover among postseason participants.
Besides, football culture is too macho to allow any concession that opponents might be superior.
Klinsmann’s analysis outraged many observers, but it took pressure off the team. With the focus squarely on him, the players could respond in two ways: They could grow despondent and consider failure a given, or they could find extra motivation and use it to prove Klinsmann wrong.
In the latter case, he always had an out, illustrating the simplistic brilliance of his comment. More coaches should follow suit and use the same qualifier when talking about their teams.
Klinsmann said, in December, that the U.S. was not championship material “yet.”
Maybe it never reaches the destination.
Or maybe it comes within reach only after seven months worth of training, gelling and playing.
With a second-place finish in Group G stuffed in his pocket, Klinsmann has no shortage of confidence entering Tuesday’s match against Belgium. “We have absolutely no fear at all,” he told reporters during a media briefing. “We feel like we are in a position now to challenge it. We believe we have built a foundation in our team that we are able to beat them.”
A victory against Ghana and a tie-that-should’ve-been-a-win against Portugal does wonders for the mindset. The 1-0 loss against Germany didn’t dent the team’s self-esteem because advancing is all that mattered. (And what’s with suggestions that we were too happy in defeat? Seemingly every NFL season concludes with teams that back into the playoffs. Either they lose as they rest starters or they lose but get to celebrate anyway, because the right combination of other teams also lost.)
Reaching the knockout stage was the first step in an “impossible” journey. The view is different from here, as Klinsmann shared with his team.
“Don’t be content,” he said he told them. “This is what you work so long and so hard for. Make it happen. Is it doable? Absolutely. We got out of this group. Now anything is doable.”
It’s hard to argue with his tactics so far. Even the controversial decision to omit Landon Donovan from the roster – which could’ve been disastrous after Jozy Altidore was injured in the first match – has worked out. Klinsmann also added several unknown players, including John Brooks, whose header was the game-winner against Ghana.
The team has come a long way since December, causing Klinsmann to adjust his prognosis as well as travel plans for return trips to the U.S.
“I asked all the players to make sure that all their flights are booked after July 13,” he said.
The World Cup final is scheduled for that date.
That’s the kind of talk we like to hear from our coaches, even if they lie about our team’s prospects.
Klinsmann told the truth seven months ago and he’s telling the truth now:
Anything can happen at this point.