There is something very American about a rah-rah speech to rally the troops. The German-born Klinsmann, though, turned that concept on its proverbial head with his reality based preview that raised just as many eyebrows as did his decision to cut Landon Donovan, the country’s most accomplished player, from the 23-man roster.
Maybe there is a method to Klinsmann’s madness, or perhaps he is just mad.
“Since Jurgen was hired we’ve trusted in his decision-making and his opinion on what he thinks is best for the team,” says starting goalkeeper Tim Howard. “He obviously has a vision for his team that he thinks is a winning one and we believe in that.”
The US begins play in Brazil a week from Monday in the so-called Group of Death: Group G, which features Germany, Portugal and Ghana, the nation which has eliminated the U.S. from the previous two World Cups. In theory, Klinsmann’s team should not be one of two teams to advance to the knockout rounds; Ghana is talented enough to reach the semifinals, while Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, the world’s Player of the Year, and Germany is traditionally a threat to lift the championship trophy.
But a case could be made for the US to earn enough points to survive the group. The fact that they play Ghana first plays in their favor, since Ghana is the most vulnerable of the three. Ronaldo arrives in Brazil with a leg injury following a long and successful club season in Spain with Real Madrid, which two weeks ago won the Champions League. In 2002, the US shocked the heavily favored Portuguese so anything is possible.
That would be wunderbar.
“I kind of had a feeling in my stomach that we were going to get Germany,” Klinsmann says. “It is one of the most difficult groups of the whole draw. It couldn’t get any more difficult, or any bigger, but that is what the World Cup is all about.”
As the U.S. team arrives in Brazil there remain several troubling issues, starting with Donovan being omitted from the roster despite his experience and penchant for delivering in big games. Donovan has appeared in 12 World Cup matches while the rest of the roster has appeared in a combined 25. His five goals in the tournament are more than the number scored by England’s Wayne Rooney, Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Ronaldo combined.
To recap: Klinsmann says the US has no chance to win the World Cup before cutting its most accomplished player. Donovan’s dramatic last-minute goal against Algeria in 2010 helped the US win the group under Bob Bradley, who was fired a year later. Klinsmann managed to secure a contract through the 2018 World Cup while at the same time lowering expectations. Clearly, Bradley erred in being so successful.
Green is one of the players referred to as a Jurgen-American; players who were either born or spent their formative years overseas and have dual citizenship. John Brooks, Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones were all born in Germany. Mix Diskerud is from Norway and Aron Johannsson was born in Mobile, Ala., before his parents moved back to Iceland when he was was 3.
“Players on the national team should be — and this is my own feeling — they should be Americans,” L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who coached the United States in 2002 and 2006, told ESPN The Magazine. “If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.”
Having a melting pot for a roster is very American. In fact, it is a common practice among other nations, most notably France, Portugal and even Germany. Klinsmann is just taking advantage of the system to enhance the roster.
Johannsson’s goal-scoring prowess earned him a spot, especially after starting striker Jozy Altidore struggled this past season with Sunderland of the English Premier League.
Jones, 32, will start in midfield and while a physical presence he is prone to yellow cards. Johnson, who scored a brilliant goal last week in a friendly against Turkey at Red Bull Arena, can play either midfield or outside back and is dangerous making runs down the flank.
The team’s best players, however, are still American-born. Michael Bradley, the son of the former U.S. coach, could play for a number of top clubs in Europe but elected to return to Major League Soccer and sign with Toronto. He is a terrific two-way player with a non-stop motor. Clint Dempsey, a veteran of two World Cups, tends to float in and out of games but he is incredibly skillful and creative. Four years ago, it was Dempsey’s goal that gave the U.S. a 1-1 opening-match draw against England.
Howard, raised in North Brunswick, N.J., plays for Everton in the EPL and is considered one of the top goalkeepers in the world. And he’d better be, because the soft underbelly of the U.S. team is its backline, which has little experience playing together as a group, essential at this level.
Germany has the ability to pick the Americans apart, and considering that Ronaldo scored three goals against Sweden just to get Portugal into the World Cup, the U.S. defense needs to be at its best. Klinsmann will pick two of the four center backs — Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron — to be his starters. And then he’ll cross his fingers.
If you go by the “Eight Year Itch” theory, this is Klinsmann’s year to at least make it to the round of 16. He never said that is impossible.
“There’s always pressure no matter what World Cup you’re in,” Dempsey says. “You always have to be performing. We’re excited by the 23 that are here, and now we can push forward. We look forward to that chance of trying to do something special in Brazil. We’re focused on going down there and doing well in order to move things forward.
“You do that by doing well in major competitions.”