During the height of his career, back when he was starring for Bayern Munich and scoring goals for the 1990 World Cup champion German team, Jurgen Klinsmann rejected fancy sports cars and chose instead to drive a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle convertible.
On the dashboard was a sticker of Snoopy in a rowboat that read: “Ist es noch weit bis Amerika?” (Is it much farther to America?) Klinsmann always had a fascination with American culture, and after retirement, he spent considerable time surfing the California coast. He wound up marrying an American wife, Debbie, and in 1998 they moved to Southern California, where they are raising two children.
Klinsmann was criticized by some German fans and media for being “too American” when he coached the German national team to third place in the 2006 World Cup. He introduced yoga, nutrition, sports psychology and family zones to the old, traditional German training camp.
Critics said Klinsmann was a good motivator, but spent more time on training than tactics, and his new-age methods were not universally embraced in the locker room. They claimed his assistant, Joachim Loew, was the true tactician behind the team’s success.
Klinsmann, 49, is now in charge of leading his adopted home nation through the World Cup in Brazil this summer. The 30 players on his provisional World Cup roster opened camp Wednesday on the Stanford University campus in Northern California. The internal battles will be fierce. Klinsmann and his staff will whittle the roster to 23 by June 2, and they face many tough decisions.
Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Michael Bradley and forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore appear to be locks to make the team. Most of the players are still auditioning — and that includes superstar Landon Donovan.
Klinsmann’s goal when he was hired nearly three years ago to replace Bob Bradley was to elevate American soccer to the next level on the world stage. U.S. fans no longer settle for great effort and occasional big wins. They want more. Anything less than advancing out of the group stage is considered a failure.
Klinsmann faces a daunting task. His players, for the most part, do not play for Europe’s top clubs, and the United States wound up in an extremely difficult group, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal team; Ghana, which knocked the United States out of the past two World Cups; and Germany, one of the favorites to win it all.
As if that weren’t challenging enough, the Americans were cursed with the most grueling travel schedule in the tournament. From base camp in Sao Paulo in the southeast, the team will criss-cross nearly 9,000 miles across the fifth-largest country in the world for matches in Natal, Manaus and Recife.
The team went 9-2-3 under Klinsmann in 2013, sat atop the CONCACAF qualifiers, beat Italy and beat Mexico at Azteca Stadium. Klinsmann promised a more creative, attacking style, and U.S. players showed that in the first half of a 2-2 tie against Mexico last month. Midfielders Bradley and Kyle Beckerman were particularly impressive, and forward Chris Wondolowski proved to be the close-range assassin the team might need in Brazil.
But once again, Klinsmann has naysayers. There are talks of locker room rifts and a disconnect between Klinsmann and some of his players. Some are disappointed the team isn’t attacking as much as he had promised, that they still tend to sit back and defend, and rely on the counterattack.
A headline to a March 25, 2013 report on sportingnews.com said: “Friendly Fire: U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s methods, leadership, acumen in question.” Unnamed players were quoted saying Klinsmann and longtime assistant Martin Vasquez lacked tactical chops and were ineffective communicating their strategies to players.
They said they wanted more specific instruction rather than comments such as “Go express yourself.”
A year later, Klinsmann fired Vasquez and brought in Berti Vogts — former national coach of Germany, Scotland and Nigeria — as a special advisor.
Klinsmann’s constant lineup changes have been questioned, and some players said off the record that team chemistry was hurt by Klinsmann seeming to give preferential treatment to German-born players such as Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler and Danny Williams. Now, 18-year-old German-American Julian Green has joined the mix.
Along the way, Klinsmann dropped longtime captain Carlos Bocanegra and has been publicly tough on three-time World Cup star Donovan, who did not win points with Klinsmann when he took an extended sabbatical to recharge his battery.
“I was always straightforward with him,” Klinsmann said of Donovan. “There’s no doubt what he did for U.S. soccer, the Galaxy, before that San Jose, or what he did in his personal career for the national team. It’s amazing. You give him every compliment he deserves. But soccer is about what you do today, and what you hopefully do tomorrow. We’re not building the group based on the past, we’re building the group based on what we go through together and what we believe, as of today, is the right decision. It’s what we’re going to do three weeks from now when we have to name 23 players.”
On the ESPN documentary Inside the U.S. National Team: March to Brazil, Klinsmann was even more direct about Donovan: “The media thinks he is untouchable, that he has to be in Brazil, has to be in the starting lineup” because of all he did the past 12 to 14 years. “But that’s not how it works. I have to make decisions based on what I see today.”
To which Donovan responded: “I want to make sure I’m performing at my absolute best there are times Jurgen has justifiably taken me out of games, and I understand. Of course, I want to play. I want to help the team however I can. If I get to play, I’ll be ecstatic. If not, I’ll be the number one cheerleader.”
With each passing day, the pressure on Klinsmann and the U.S. team mounts.
“Jurgen is a very enthusiastic coach, is really into it, lots of positive reinforcement, but there are questions about some of the decisions he’s made,” said Taylor Twellman, an ESPN analyst and former member of the U.S. team. “Like, how do you leave Eddie Johnson off your 30-man roster when he did so much to help the team get to the World Cup? But Jurgen is not shy or worried about what the media or anyone think.
“He was hired for the World Cup, to prepare the team for the Ghanas, Portugals and Germanys. If anyone questions whether he is ruthless enough, just look at how he let Martin Vasquez go two months before the World Cup. This is a guy who had been with him through thick and thin. Jurgen will be measured by this World Cup, and that is all he is focusing on.”
‘A great subplot’
Asked what stamp he has put on the team, Twellman said: “The German-Americans, that is what stands out. It’s amazing how many German-born players are on his 30-man roster. I have no problem with it if they bleed red, white and blue. I do wonder if they’ll be awestruck playing Germany, how they’ll feel hearing that anthem before the game. It’s a great subplot.”
There is little doubt this is the most talented group of 30 the United States has ever had.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to compare starting 11s from each World Cup, but I think this team is deeper, and that’s obvious when you see a guy like Eddie Johnson being left off the 30-man roster,” said U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya of Weston. “People look at our World Cup group on paper and say, ‘Oh my God,’ but we have to play the games. We are confident enough to know we can get a result on any given day.”
Klinsmann has 15 days to make his final team selections.
“I understand people from the outside sometimes look at it differently,” he said. “They see some players that don’t bring the experience to the table, or the track record. There are a lot of 50-50 situations: center backs, fullbacks, two or three midfielders, and strikers that will compete for spots.
“We can see them compete with each other day-in and day-out, get a feel for the chemistry, which is very important for the spirit of the team, the way they help each other and bond. There will always be discussions, but I think the only people at the end of the day who are able to bring all the little pieces in to the whole bucket and make that call are us coaches.”