David J. Neal

June 7, 2014

David J. Neal: Don’t blame U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann for just being honest about World Cup chances

Wednesday’s excellent New York Times profile of U.S. national soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann contains the quote: “We cannot win this World Cup because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win this tournament realistically, it is not possible.” Some Americans can’t handle the truth.

We can’t handle the truth.

Wednesday’s excellent New York Times profile of U.S. national soccer team coach Jurgen Klinsmann contains the quote: “We cannot win this World Cup because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win this tournament …realistically, it is not possible.”

Uproar ensued. Xenophobia flared. Some media talking fat heads, some of whom couldn’t tell David Beckham (playing career dead) from David Frost (buried dead), roared, “Get out, Jurgen!”

Oh, stop. To start, this isn’t some anti-U.S. snobbism on Klinsmann’s part. Klinsmann loves the United States.

He vacationed here as a player. His wife is from here. He lives in California and raises his kids here.

He’s not crazy about the way we raise soccer players, but we’ll get to that later.

Some people theorize Klinsmann is trying to insulate himself. Should the United States bomb out, go 0-3, this theory goes that he can say, hey, what’d you expect? I told you we weren’t good enough.

If the United States makes its first-ever World Cup semifinal or even the quarters as it did in 2002, Klinsmann receives canonization from the ever-growing U.S. soccer public.

The problems with that: Klinsmann’s contract with U.S. Soccer runs through 2018. That’s too far away for him to be dropped should the United States lay an egg in Brazil. Also, he’s on record as rejecting the Coach-as-Mr. Whoopie-Man-With-All-The-Answers culture so prevalent at all levels of U.S. sport.

Also, looking at what he said — “The game of our lives seven times …” — seems a purposeful overstatement. Ghana beat the United States in 2006 and 2010 but had to go to extra time to do it in 2010’s Round of 16. In 2002, the United States beat a Portugal team that’s more highly regarded than this edition in group play and actually had the better of the play in a 1-0 quarterfinal loss to eventual runner-up Germany. (Not to mention, The Unseen Hand …)

So, I’m thinking Klinsmann meant his words to reach ears on other shores. You think such a statement by a German soccer playing and coaching legend didn’t get play in Germany, the top-rated team in Group G with the United States? Or in Portugal and Ghana?

Perhaps Klinsmann hoped to lower their mental guard going into games against the Americans. Then, to the team, he says, “This is how we’ll kick these guys butts.” Any edge could prove crucial in a group that’s in contention for the Group of Death designation.

Or, perhaps, Klinsmann just spoke the brute reality he saw from his seat.

That doesn’t go over well here in the land of the American Revolution and the Miracles of Mets and Ice.

We always want to believe if we throw enough great American spirit — or great American dollar — at something, we’ll prevail in the time frame we wish.

And we never give up. Let Panama forgive Roberto Duran and boxing experts call Sonny Liston great. The mainstream American public sniffs at them. They sinned. They quit.

Why, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks would’ve never said such a thing before the 1980 Winter Olympics!

You’re right, he wouldn’t have. Because it’s apples to oranges. Or, apples to kumquats. And points out why what Klinsmann said wasn’t a big deal.

The 12 teams in that tournament, save the Soviet Union, weren’t known quantities in that era before professional player participation. Looking back, we see that the Soviets and Czechs were between eras and the United States brought more ability than anyone thought.

Even Brooks couldn’t know that his team of collegians contained several future longtime NHLers.

By contrast, Klinsmann knows his team. They’ve played professionally for years. He knows he doesn’t have a roster filled with regular starters in the English Premier League, Bundesliga or Italy’s Serie A.

Brooks did know his team had players who could score consistently at that level of hockey. Conversely, Klinsmann sees the U.S. lacking in the high-end set-up men and finishers you see on World Cup winners.

The “why” makes for good sangria conversation. While our development programs don’t scoop deeply enough into our economically disadvantaged groups, I think it’s a problem more in talent pool quantity (limiting) than ethnicity (not enough black and Hispanic kids).

Or, too much inept coaching too young, too many badly structured practices, too little time for a great talent to just mess around with the ball.

The creative best in games of flow — soccer, basketball, hockey — form a relationship with the ball/puck through time alone with it. Then, they bring those findings to team play.

Whatever, we still don’t have it. Without it, you can be good enough to reach a World Cup, good enough to get out of group play, but you’re just a stepping-stone for another nation as far as the World Cup title.

That’s the truth of our current reality. Don’t blame the messenger.

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