U.S. soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann is known as an upbeat guy, an eternal optimist who smiles on the sideline more than his predecessors and likes to give feel-good speeches. But he has caused quite a stir with his recent comments that it is unrealistic to think his team will win the 2014 World Cup.
He stood by his comments at a news conference Wednesday at the team’s training grounds. The World Cup kicks off at 4 p.m. Thursday when host and five-time champion Brazil takes on Croatia. A U.S. fan group called the American Outlaws rallies around the cry: “We believe we will win,” but Klinsmann said expectations of former champions such as Germany, for which he played and coached, and Brazil are different from teams such as the United States.
“You have to be realistic,” Klinsmann said of U.S. expectations. “I think we, every year, are making another step forward, we are getting stronger. We now always approach games where we say we don’t look at ourselves as an underdog, even though a lot of people put us as the underdog. In this very difficult group, we are not. We are going to go in there and take the game to Ghana and they will take it to us and then we go from there.
“For us now, talking about winning the World Cup is just not realistic. First, we have to make it through the group, so let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say, ‘Let’s get that group done and then the sky is the limit.’ But beforehand, half a year before, even [Wednesday] before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win the World Cup is just not realistic. If it’s American or not American, I don’t know, you can correct me however you want.”
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Klinsmann was born and raised in Germany and was a star forward on Germany’s 1990 World Cup-winning team. He coached the 2006 German World Cup team, which reached the semifinals.
Landon Donovan, who played in three World Cups for the U.S. team but missed the cut for the 23-man roster a few weeks ago, was hired by ESPN as an analyst, and fired back at Klinsmann during his debut Wednesday.
“This will come as a surprise to nobody, but I don’t agree with Jurgen,” Donovan said. “As someone who’s been in that [U.S.] locker room, and has sat next to the players, we agree with the American Outlaws — we believe that we will win. I think that’s the way Americans think. I think that’s the sentiment.”
The United States opens its World Cup campaign Monday with a 6 p.m. match against Ghana in Natal in Group G, which also includes Portugal and Germany.
Several U.S. players, including midfielder Alejandro Bedoya of Weston, said they don’t mind the underdog status.
“People around the world still have a little bit of a prejudice,” Bedoya said. “Maybe America’s still growing in the soccer world. It’s not the biggest sport in our country. They still poke fun that we call it soccer, not football. But I’m not bothered by it. When I got to France [to play for Nantes,] there hadn’t been too many Americans in that league and I showed that American players can be technical and good players and do well.”
Forward Jozy Altidore of Boca Raton remained diplomatic on the subject: “We haven’t won a World Cup before. You come here with that dream in the back of our minds, let’s not be silly. But we have to be realistic. Other teams are more favored than we are.”
Klinsmann said he welcomes the pressure of being a World Cup coach, and the criticism he gets is a sign of the growth of soccer in America. He said he is sleeping well despite the stress. He tried yoga but didn’t have the patience for it.
“We’re trying to get to the next level,” Klinsmann said. “This is now the moment. This is the stage that we want to be on. That’s what you work [for] for four years. I personally love that. The more difficult it gets, the more I enjoy it.
“I think that shows you where soccer is in the United States and I love that. And I know that there are millions of head coaches out there, and they would have put 23 different players together. And that is the beauty of it.”
The United States was scheduled to scrimmage Belgium on Thursday, but Belgian coach Marc Wilmots canceled because of traffic chaos in the city.
“I don’t want to sit on a bus for five hours,” Wilmots said.