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Media Watch

Jurgen Klinsmann and His No-Can-Do Attitude

Was the United States men's national team coach right to say that his 2014 squad "cannot win this World Cup"? American Soccer Now's Josh Deaver puts it all in perspective.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
June 11, 2014
2:04 PM
IN A RECENT New York Times Magazine profile, one of several new think pieces on U.S men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German superstar made a headline-grabbing prediction for Brazil.

“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet.”

Anyone familiar with the landscape of international soccer shouldn’t see much wrong with this sentiment. He’s almost certainly right. The Americans, despite remarkable advancements and an impressive streak of qualification, are still a class below the best. There is no shame in this, but it’s a position that will require years, likely decades, of growth before one could reasonably expect the Yanks to contend for the coveted trophy.

However, as the erstwhile German has discovered, in the meritocracy of professional sports—especially in the United States—this is not a popular sentiment.

Klinsmann’s stated goal since taking the position of head coach (his role now includes the title technical director) was to shake U.S Soccer out of its “comfort zone”—a concept discussed ad nauseum in regards to his player’s individual careers. For the coach, complacency is the problem as the U.S. sporting culture does not demand the same level of accountability from its professional soccer players compared to European counterparts.

“We don’t have that,” Klinsmann ruefully told the Guardian in a recent interview. “This is what we would love to have one day, but it will still take a few years.”

To agitate this change in mindset, Klinsmann has sometimes chosen to judiciously temper his California-inspired, Zen-like optimism with heavy doses of German pragmatism in order to make his point. Looking to catalyze players, as well as the soccer fan community, one could repurpose his now-famous line when describing U.S. captain Clint Dempsey's accomplishments: "America, you haven’t done shit.”

The strategy may be working. The current backlash serves to underscore a relatively new feature of American soccer fandom, and one that demonstrates Klinsmann’s success so far: expectation. In the aftermath of the comments which, in fairness, were made in December, the overwhelming response has been one of incredulity. Uncouth to admit American weakness and nearly heretical to embrace it, the proclamation has been largely met with mouths agape and "why, I never!" astonishment.

Repeating the once-every-four-years tradition, for better or worse, the multitude of mainstream rubberneckers are again taking account of U.S. Soccer. Despite the statement and regardless if talking points carry on far past Brazil—trends show they likely won’t—the team’s success in 2010 combined with the perceived ease by which they secured qualification has built Klinsmann a narrow platform on which to operate. He now must balance the high expectations of an uninitiated public, one raised on Olympic glory and American sporting superiority, with what is a realistic expectation for the Americans in Brazil, taking to account the unfortunate draw.

In conceding the tournament has a high probability for failure, the feeling exists that Klinsmann is, in some way, selfishly trying to protect his legacy which, to this point, is as the pilot of one of the most successful periods in national team history. Whether it’s this, if it was designed to temper public expectation or simply exists as a master motivational tool for his players—or, all three—we may never know. However, it is not an unfamiliar sentiment for American coaches heading to the World Cup. Never questioned for his patriotism as Klinsmann is now, Bruce Arena, who coached national sides for two World Cup cycles, offered a similar sentiment prior to departing for Japan and Korea in 2002.

“We’re not going to win the World Cup because we’re not a good enough team. I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged by us saying that. I mean, how many countries have won it?”

The difference now is that soccer in America has grown to the point that the mainstream sports media is taking notice of comments like these. Even if he draws the ire, the engagement is still there. Despite thrusting Klinsmann into another controversy—as Landon Donovan’s omission still hangs low in the public consciousness—this is, ultimately, a positive step forward.

It’s also a gamble. From the outside, the perception of a “negative” coach, who coldly jettisoned America’s “best player” in favor of young and “inexperienced” players, with an eye seemingly trained on World Cup 2018, is not a situation that may engender the most acclaim among the general public. It will, however, bring in new eyeballs as the Q-rating rises accordingly.

In the end, Klinsmann is accomplishing what he set out to do. He’s demanding an investment. Whether it’s anger, joy, acceptance, or denial—getting any sort of reaction is a partial victory for U.S. Soccer. Within every barbed comment, every veteran snubbed, and every youth capped there is purpose. Going one step further: What better way to inspire accountability, for himself and the team, then by removing the security blanket of Landon Donovan and soldiering on alone?

Hell or high water, Klinsmann seems determined to drag American soccer—kicking and screaming if need be—into the future. For him, brutal honesty, tough roster calls and the exit of former stars is a simple reality of the international game, one that the United States has never truly had to deal with.

Until now.

Was Klinsmann right to say what he did? Are Reilly and Wilbon and other "mainstream" sportswriters getting bent out of shape over nothing? We want to hear your take.

Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive and an ASN columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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